A weird thing happened in Iowa this week. Hillary Clinton was campaigning for president — no, that’s not the weird thing — and she paraphrased a question from the audience about what in her experience prepared her to deal with “evil and bad men.” Before she could answer, the audience burst into laughter, and Clinton joined in.
It was such an awkward moment, much of the commentariat hasn’t figured out exactly what to say about it, starting with Clinton herself. At first she tried to explain that she was thinking of Osama bin Laden and Bush’s inability to capture him. Later, she claimed she was making a joke — just not about her husband.
From my own viewing of the video — you can find it on YouTube and elsewhere — Hillary wasn’t making any joke at all. She was merely the butt of one and laughed along with the crowd — without getting the joke — in an excruciating “I meant to do that” sort of way.
When asked whether the joke was about Bill, she said, “Oh, come on. Well, I don’t think anybody in there thought that.” But of course everyone thought that. Liberal pundits, spinners, and the audience members who talked to the press afterward all said that the unspoken punch line was Bill Clinton. The Wall Street Journal’s Jackie Calmes writes: “Several Democrats afterward said they interpreted her delivery as a charmingly funny allusion to her husband’s past marital misbehavior.”
If Hillary doesn’t see that, she’s a very bad politician indeed. And, truth be told, I think she is a bad politician in the sense that she is incapable of connecting with audiences the way, for example, her husband can. The most powerful emotional impression she makes on most people isn’t compassion or warmth or sympathy — the hallmarks of a politician who’s good in a room — but discipline. She comes across as stiffer than Trent Lott’s hair and more tightly wound than a rubber-band ball. Even sympathetic reporters write about her as if her id were a tiny little general in an immense war room plotting every move on maps sprawled out in front of her. Clinton’s inadvertent joke wasn’t part of her plan, even though the audience in her town halls and Internet chat sessions is pre-selected. And when forced to explain something off-script, she wobbles like a tightrope walker who missed a step.
The amazing thing is that she gets away with this. Although everyone understands that Clinton takes positions on issues based on political calculation, it somehow doesn’t count against her. A recent episode of Saturday Night Live captured the essence of Clinton nicely. “I think most Democrats know me,” the fake Clinton told a fake Chris Matthews. “They understand that my support for the war was always insincere. Of course, knowing what we know now, that you could vote against the war and still be elected president, I would never have pretended to support it.”
Hillary’s is a very old act, and sometimes she doesn’t even care that people know it’s an act. She baked cookies as an ironic joke about her remark that she “could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas” instead of having a career.
In 1996, she floated the idea of adopting a child, presumably to soften her image. When her husband’s campaign was over, the urge to adopt miraculously subsided. In 2000, she deftly boxed her Senate opponent, Rick Lazio, into seeming like a bully against the poor lady politician.
This victim pose remains incredibly useful for Senator Clinton and her fans. In 2003, when Clinton’s memoir came out, “reporters” like Barbara Walters virtually produced infomercials in her honor. Clinton insisted that she wanted to put her husband’s infidelities behind her and that she was dedicated to the issues. It was a masterful charade in which the Great Woman of Substance was forced, reluctantly, to talk about her humiliation at the hands of that charming rogue Bill as well as by those sexist cads of the Republican Right. But when the Washington Post tried to interview her about the substantive portions of her autobiography, she, according to the Post, “declined to be interviewed about the political content of her book.” Catch that? She didn’t decline to be interviewed. She merely declined to be interviewed about anything other than her role as “victim.”
Clinton’s “joke” will be forgotten in a few days, and rightly so. But in the bigger picture, the joke’s on us.
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