Technical discourse in defense of public virtue: Ronald reagan's explanation of the iran/contra affair

Ronald Lee, Shawn J. Spano

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Contemporary political communication is marked by an evolving dialectical tension between public and technical forms of discourse. Using Ronald Reagan's explanation of the Iran/Contra arms‐for‐hostages initiative as a case study, this article explores the rhetorical uses of technical rationality and the dangers these appeals pose for public deliberation. A close reading of Reagan's March 4, 1987, Iran/Contra defense speech demonstrates that Reagan employed the Tower Commission Report's technical judgments to separate the ethical realm of the public from the nonethical realm of the technical. As a result, he was able to define the Iran/Contra affair as an instrumental problem of bureaucratic organization rather than a betrayal of the public trust. This strategy of demarcating the moral realms of agent from agency is conceptualized as both a moral dodge and an instance of what Kenneth Burke calls ironic discourse. The article concludes by contrasting Reagan's strategy with other recent political crises in which public servants did not separate their public virtue from their administrative responsibility.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)115-129
Number of pages15
JournalPolitical Communication
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 1996


  • Bureaucracy
  • Iran/Contra
  • Presidency
  • Public
  • Reagan
  • Rhetoric
  • Technical
  • Virtue

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Sociology and Political Science


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