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Home arrow Communication arrow Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: Image Repair Theory and Research
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Senator David Vitter's Image Repair on the “D.C. Madam”

Republican David Vitter currently serves as the junior senator from Louisiana; Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, is the other senator from the Pelican state. After serving as a representative for Louisiana from 1999 to 2004, Vitter won election to the Senate in 2004. This was a notable victory, because he was “the first Republican from Louisiana elected to the Senate since Reconstruction” (CBS/AP, 2009). Vitter supported “family values” and “made his name decrying public corruption and demanding that President Bill Clinton resign for lying about an affair with a White House aide” (Alpert, 2010; see also Blaney & Benoit, 2001).

In 1987, Vitter faced three interrelated accusations. First, it was alleged that he had used the services of a prostitute in Washington, D.C. Second, critics charged that this action revealed him as a hypocrite, given his public remonstrations over President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. Finally, it was claimed that Vitter also patronized prostitutes in New Orleans. It seems clear that the first accusation was the most serious of the three. Fox News (2007) reported,

On Monday, Vitter acknowledged being involved with the so-called D.C. Madam. A day later, new revelations linked him to a former madam in New Orleans and old allegations that he frequented a former prostitute resurfaced, further clouding his political future.

Vitter's response to each of these accusations will be discussed in turn. His initial statement of July 10 (an e-mail to the Associated Press) and his press conference with his wife on July 16 are the texts for this analysis. He explained the timing in his press conference, saying that he and his wife “thought it was very important to have some time alone with our children” (CNN, 2007).

Bolstering

Vitter said that he is committed to “advancing mainstream conservative principles” and noted that he and his wife are lectors at their hometown church (Murray, 2007). These statements function to bolster his reputation generally; they do not directly respond to a particular accusation. It is possible that his use of bolstering could help counteract the threat to his image, reinforcing responses to other accusations.

Patronizing the D.C. Madam

Minimization

The statement containing Vitter's apology said his telephone number was included on phone records of Pamela Martin and Associates dated from before he ran for the Senate in 2004 (Murray, 2007). However, Vitter did not rely heavily on minimization: “No matter how long ago it was, I know this has hurt the relationship of trust I've enjoyed with so many of you . . . I will work every day to rebuild that trust” (CNN, 2007). At the end of this statement, he slides into corrective action: “I will work every day to rebuild that trust.”

Mortification

Several statements enact the strategy of mortification. Vitter accepted blame for this offensive act, stating, “This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible” (Murray, 2007). Furthermore, he said that he sought and obtained forgiveness for his lapse: “I confronted it in confession and marriage counseling. I believe I received forgiveness from God; I know I did from Wendy” (CNN, 2007). Vitter also apologized to those he disappointed: “I certainly offer my deep and sincere apologies to all I have disappointed and let down in any way” (Murray, 2007). He accepted responsibility, asked for forgiveness, and apologized for his transgression: a clear instance of mortification.

Furthermore, Vitter's wife, Wendy Vitter, reinforced his use of mortification, saying she had forgiven her husband when she first learned about his use of an escort service several years ago: “I made the decision to love him and to recommit to our marriage. To forgive is not always the easy choice, but it was, and is, the right choice for me” (CNN, 2007).

Corrective Action

Vitter's statement said that he had undertaken marriage counseling, an instance of corrective action: “I've gotten up every morning, committed to trying to live up to the important values we believe in” (CNN, 2007).

Transcendence

Vitter argued that his family deserved privacy (a more important value): “Out of respect for my family, I will keep my discussion of the matter there—with God and them” (Murray, 2007). His wife also made a plea “as a mother” to the media to give her family some privacy, noting that reporters have been staking out their home and church. “I would just ask you very respectfully to let us continue our summer, and our lives, as we had planned” (CNN, 2007). Wendy Vitter observed that “in most any other marriage, this would have been a private issue between a husband and a wife. Very private. Obviously, it is not here” (CNN, 2007). These statements all work to suggest that the Vitter family's privacy was important and should supersede prurient interest in this case. David Vitter also briefly suggested that he needed to return to more important work in the Senate: “From here I'll go directly to the airport and to Washington for votes, because I'm eager to continue my work in the U.S. Senate to help Louisiana move forward” (CNN, 2007). He argued that his family's privacy and the Senate's work are more important than an old scandal.

Hypocritical Behavior

Corrective Action

Vitter, who established part of his reputation as a family-values Republican when he criticized President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinski, said he has been “trying to live up to the important values we believe” since admitting to his mistakes (CNN, 2007). Although he may have engaged in hypocritical behavior in the past, he was no longer a hypocrite, given that he changed his sinful ways. Of course, only Vitter knows what is in his heart, but he seemed sincere in his desire to mend his ways.

Attack Accuser

He suggested that it was inappropriate for his critics to continue harping on his past: “If continuing to believe in and acknowledge those values causes some to attack me because of my past failure, well, so be it” (Palfrey, 2007). He also suggested that his critics were trying to make money rather than do good: the criticism “might sell newspapers but it wouldn't serve my family or my constituents well at all” (CNN, 2007).

New Orleans Prostitution

Denial

Vitter called this allegation “absolutely and completely untrue” (Murray, 2007); “Those stories are not true” (Palfrey, 2007). “With his wife by his side, [he] denied allegations he had relationships with New Orleans prostitutes” (Palfrey, 2007). Given the fact that he apologized for the D.C. Madam, this denial might have been persuasive for many in his audience.

Attack Accuser

As with those who continued to bring up the “D.C. Madam,” Vitter criticized those who claimed he had patronized a New Orleans prostitute, calling the accusation “just crass Louisiana politics” (Murray, 2007). Vitter “attributed those charges to 'long-term political enemies' and people seeking money” (Palfrey, 2007). If these criticisms of his accusers were accepted by the audience, it would have reduced the credibility of these accusations against Vitter.

Evaluation

Senator Vitter's image repair effort was well designed. He bolstered by stressing conservative values. Arguably the most serious accusation was his relationship with the D.C. Madam. He admitted his transgression and apologized (engaged in mortification) and said he was reforming his behavior (corrective action). He claimed that God and his wife had forgiven him, and his wife confirmed her portion of that forgiveness (the idea of one person attempting to repair the image of another, as Wendy Vitter did here, is explored more in chapter 7). Surely her statement strongly reinforced his use of mortification. Without directly addressing the question of whether he had been a hypocrite in the past, he suggested that by reforming his behavior he was no longer a hypocrite. He seemed sincere, and people tend to believe that most offenders deserve a second chance. Vitter was able to reject the accusation that he had patronized prostitutes in New Orleans, offering the plausible explanation that false attacks were politically motivated. Given the fact that he confessed his transgression with the D.C. Madam, his denial of involvement with the New Orleans prostitute was likely to be accepted. Transcendence (that his family deserves privacy, that he had more important business to attend to in the Senate) played a relatively minor role in his defense, but both points were worth making. His use of minimization was minor, and it would have been a mistake to stress this idea any more than he did. Thus Vitter's image repair effort was well thought out and implemented. The day following the joint press conference, ABC News reported, “For the most part, Vitter's tribulations have been met with support from those in his party. After all, as Jesus said, 'let he who is without sin cast the first stone.'” All his critics were not completely silenced, but it was clear he had weathered the initial storm.

Although his defense was probably effective when he made it in 2007, Vitter did not face a true test of his image, because he did not have to run for reelection to the Senate until 2010. This gave him the opportunity to show that he had reformed. The polls certainly showed his image repair had been effective: “Three years later, independent polls have consistently shown Vitter comfortably ahead of his Democratic challenger, maintaining a double-digit lead” (Alpert, 2010). His opponent, Democrat Charlie Melancon, reminded voters of Vitter's immoral behavior. However, Vitter won the election 57% to 38% despite the fact that his opponent campaigned by “playing the prostitution card.” Thus Vitter's success in his campaign for reelection shows that he had successfully overcome his image problem.

Conclusion

In 2007, Louisiana senator David Vitter was implicated in the “D.C. Madam” scandal. He dealt effectively with the minor accusations (that he was a hypocrite and that he had patronized a prostitute in New Orleans). His principle defense was to admit he had transgressed (accepting blame), apologize, correct his behavior, and show forgiveness from his wife. We should not underestimate the importance of his wife's statement that she had forgiven him. Despite the fact that his opponent in the Senate race dredged up this scandal, Vitter easily won reelection to the Senate in 2007. His image repair effort was successful.

Vitter used two image repair messages: a brief e-mail followed by a press conference with his wife. Benoit, Gullifor, and Panici (1991) examined a series of messages from President Ronald Reagan on the Iran-Contra affair: His popularity continued to decline until he confessed to wrongdoing (mortification) and introduced corrective action. Similarly, President Bill Clinton initially denied having a relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky; ultimately he was forced to confess (Blaney & Benoit, 2001). However, Vitter did not have to change his defense, because his initial statement embraced mortification and corrective action. Vitter's press conference allowed him to address the allegations in a more extended message—and more important, address them with his wife standing by his side. Multiple messages are not necessarily problematic, as Vitter's image repair effort shows. Perhaps more important, his wife stood solidly with him. Arguably, one's wife would be hurt even more by infidelity than one's constituents. If she was willing to publically forgive him, that gave others a strong reason to do so as well.

 
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