When People magazine made Hillary Clinton the lead story in its May 2014 issue, my then-editor at the Washington Free Beacon e-mailed a photo of the cover to see if I would have the same reaction he did. “Looks like she’s holding a walker,” I wrote back. Because it kind of did, even though she wasn’t.
It was clearly a patio chair that Clinton, then 66, was leaning on for support in that photo, presumably to avoid another embarrassing fall. Or maybe not. It could just as easily have been an old person’s walker custom-built to resemble a patio chair, or perhaps a stylishly outfitted Hoveround mobility scooter for the wealthy. We may never know.
The Free Beacon ran what we thought was an overtly farcical story about Hillary’s (alleged) walker because we thought our readers would enjoy it, which they did. Many liberals in the media did not. “Walkergate” became an Internet scandal of the highest order. People was compelled to issue a formal denial that Hillary had used a walker in the photo shoot, and the Free Beacon was denounced in the Washington Post for its “inflamed” contribution to a “ludicrous debate.”
Two years later, jokes about Hillary’s old age and failing health are still funny, but the line between parody and reality is becoming less clear. On the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the Democratic candidate was heaved semi-conscious (and semi-shoed) into an idling getaway van like some punch-drunk bachelor into a taxi at 3 a.m., or a cumbersome duffel into the belly of a 747.
Hillary’s lifeless tumble was a sight to behold, and certainly newsworthy. If a bystander had been there to capture it on camera, you can be sure that it would have been promptly wiped clean from the server of history. But there was a video, and the campaign was forced to admit that Hillary had pneumonia. Just like that, Hillary’s health entered the bounds of acceptable discourse.
We are even allowed to make fun of it now, apparently, and not just the inflamed right-wing trolls. Everyone can do it, even liberals. In what might be the most refreshing development in an otherwise demoralizing campaign cycle, The New Yorker, of all places, published a cartoon that (gasp!) made a joke about the elderly politician’s health scare.
The cartoon features Clinton propped up by two secret agents, above the caption: “People wanted her to act more like Bernie, but I don’t think they meant the one from ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’” — a reference to the 1989 comedy in which two insurance agents lug around their dead boss (Bernie) in an effort to convince others he’s really alive. In the end, their whimsical charade succeeds. Will the Clinton campaign’s?
Before Hillary’s (most recent) fall, any untoward suggestions, any dumb jokes about the candidate’s health, were usually met with howls of derision from liberal pundits still reeling from the fallout of Walkergate. These pundits, all of us, could stand to take a deep breath, back away from our screens, and have a good long laugh at Hillary Clinton. It’s not hard. Some of us have been doing it for decades.
Laughing at Hillary doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t make you a Republican. “What’s the difference?” some Democrats might say. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert taught them that, when it comes to political humor, jokes are something not to be laughed at, but rather applauded and cheered in an orgy of self-righteous affirmation. For a certain cultural set, comedy isn’t about “punching up” or “speaking truth to power.” It’s about eviscerating your partisan foes, no matter how minor. For example, the number of county-level GOP officials Stewart/Colbert utterly destroyed in their careers is likely on the magnitude of genocide.
Rogue programs such as South Park aren’t shy about comparing Hillary Clinton to a “turd sandwich,” but the mainstream media culture is dominated by sympathetic liberals who either don’t find anything about her funny or are simply uninterested in roasting one of their own. Both are ludicrous propositions. Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon has won praise for her portrayal of Hillary as an antisocial, power-mad psychopath but has also said of Clinton, “Obviously, I love her so much.” It’s weird for anyone to admit to loving a politician, much more so for a professional comedian.
Democrats could at least take a moment to revel in the dark humor of their situation, having nominated perhaps the only human being (as she often, unconvincingly, reminds us she is) capable of losing an election to Donald Trump. Hillary struggled to finish off Bernie Sanders, a 75-year-old socialist who looks and sounds as though he was roused from a tent behind the venue at the first primary debate just to fill out the stage.
Hillary might be qualified, but she is hilariously bad at interviewing for the job. Normal people can’t relate to her because, for example, she’s incapable of making small talk without talking points and can’t answer a simple question like “What is your favorite ice cream?” without hedging, as if to avoid taking a position that could come back to haunt her in a deposition — because who knows, with her, it might!
In theory, Hillary should be an easy target for comedians. She’s the most powerful senior citizen on the planet. She wants so badly to be president, it’s unnatural. This is typically a disqualifying feature shared by all presidential candidates, but Hillary is just worse. She’s been campaigning for decades, is past the age of retirement, is in questionable health, and yet stumbles onward in the hope that one day the Secret Service will be heaving her aboard Air Force One.
Admit it, there is a certain humor in watching people like Hillary fail. It was pretty fun watching Jeb Bush implode, wasn’t it? But Hillary might not fail this time, and if we’re going to keep our sanity through another four (eight?) years of Clintons in the White House, we’re going to need all the laughs we can get.
– Mr. Stiles is the politics editor of Heat Street.