Who are Sen. Clinton's "evil men"? Media mind-readers can't agree

››› ››› BEN ARMBRUSTER

At a January 28 campaign stop in Iowa, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) responded to an audience member's question about her qualifications for dealing with "evil" men abroad by saying: "Well, the question really is, we face a lot of dangers in the world and, in the gentleman's words, we face a lot of evil men, you know, people like Osama bin Laden comes to mind," adding: "And what, in my background, equips me to deal with evil and bad men?" This latter response provoked laughter from the audience, and numerous media outlets, personalities, and pundits have tried to analyze what Clinton meant or simply asserted what the audience interpreted Clinton to have meant. Many suggested she was referring to her husband, former President Bill Clinton, while others suggested that she could have been referring to "tormentors on the domestic front," former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, or President Bush.

Among those claiming that Clinton was referring to her husband were:

  • On the January 29 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes said: "[I]t seemed to be clear to everybody in the audience that she was talking about her husband, Bill Clinton."
  • On January 29, the New York Post ran a front-page headline -- "Joke's on Bill" -- that led to an article headlined "Hill's 'Evil' Joke on Hubby Bubba." The Post noted that her response "drew 31 seconds of straight laughter and applause," adding that Clinton's comment "left little doubt among attendees that she'd made a joke at hubby Bill Clinton's expense." The Post also reported that, "when told that her quip had left the impression it was Bill," Clinton replied: "Oh, come on. I don't think anybody in there thought that. I thought I was funny."
  • On the January 29, 11 a.m. ET edition of MSNBC News Live, host Norah O'Donnell repeatedly asked JoDee Winterhoff, Iowa state director for Clinton's presidential campaign, if Clinton was referring to her husband, twice inquiring if she was "talking about Bill Clinton," while also twice asking: "Who was she talking about?" Winterhoff asserted that Clinton was "making a joke" and repeatedly stated that Clinton "was repeating part of what the gentleman had asked."
  • Referring to Clinton's response on the January 29 edition of MSNBC's Tucker, host Tucker Carlson asserted that "[i]t was a woman subtly mocking her husband, and good for her." Then pointing to Clinton's claim that she didn't think the audience thought she was referring to her husband, Carlson added that she "retreated to her default position, which is phoniness."
  • On the January 29 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet told host Chris Matthews: "Somebody said, specifically -- well, somebody in the audience -- you know, when we -- in the interview said, 'Is this the bad Bill that she was talking about?' And she then gave a big, chill look -- and boy, that is icy! When you see that coming, that's -- ooh! And she says, 'Oh, come on.' No one, she said, was thinking that. But people were, Chris."
  • On the January 29 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Barnes reiterated his claim that he thought Clinton was referring to her husband, while Roll Call executive editor Morton M. Kondracke claimed that "the press thought that she was dealing with -- she was reflecting on the bad Bill."
  • On the January 29 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Washington Post staff writer Anne E. Kornblut said that "the presence of Bill Clinton is everywhere when she [Hillary Clinton] is campaigning. He wasn't physically there with her this weekend ... but she referred to him all the time. What you saw with the bad men joke, though, was an example of the lurking potential for people to remember the bad Bill, and I can tell you the press conference was quite uncomfortable when that -- the bad side re-emerged. So, I think their goal now is to maximize the good Bill, minimize the bad Bill, and try and get the most out of the parts of the electorate who still really care for Bill Clinton."
  • On the January 30 edition of Hardball, Matthews and MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan both agreed that Clinton was talking about her husband. Buchanan claimed that "[i]t's about Bill, of course" while Matthews replied: "Of course it was," adding: "She's denying that" and "she won't admit that was a joke about Bill." Later, suggesting Clinton was referring to both her husband and Osama bin Laden, Matthews claimed: "You don't compare a guy who kills 3,000 people with somebody who had a little trouble with an intern."
  • Also on the January 30 edition of Hardball, when Matthews asked, "What was the joke?" Newsweek chief political correspondent Howard Fineman replied, "The joke was about her husband, obviously."
  • On the January 30 edition of CBS' The Early Show, Democratic strategist Joe Trippi claimed: "I assume she was referring to Bill Clinton."
  • On the January 31 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, Republican strategist Georgette Mosbacher, responding to host Lou Dobbs' question about whether Clinton's comments were "unbelievably good wit or an unbelievable gaffe," asserted: "I mean, you know, I don't think you say those kinds of things about your husband even if you believe them. Even if they're true, you know, you're supposed to fake it."

Others in the media had different ideas:

  • On the January 29 edition of Fox News Live, John Harris, editor in chief of The Politico, told host E.D. Hill: "For what it's worth, I thought maybe she was referring to Ken Starr, not Bill Clinton."
  • On the January 30 edition of The Early Show, Gail Sheehy, author of Hillary's Choice (Random House, 2000), said: "Well, my guess is she was probably thinking about President Bush," while Politico senior political writer Ben Smith added that "there was subsequent speculation that she was talking about Kenneth Starr."
  • Also on the January 29 edition of Special Report, National Public Radio national correspondent Mara Liasson asserted that it was "just as plausible" for Clinton to have been referring to "all the men who have attacked her and tormented her." Liasson later added, "I think she was thinking of Newt Gingrich and Republicans."
  • Fox News political analyst Dick Morris, on the January 29 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, asserted that Sen. Clinton "meant bin Laden." In a January 29 article, McClatchy Newspapers reported that just before Clinton repeated the audience member's question, she answered: "We face a lot of dangers in the world and in the gentleman's words, we face a lot of evil men," adding: "People like Osama bin Laden come to mind."
  • On the January 29 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, Fox News analyst Mary Ann Marsh suggested that Clinton's audience thought she was referring to both her husband and Vice President Dick Cheney: "[T]hat's a comment that could mean almost anything to almost anyone. Some people took it to mean her husband. I think some people took it to mean Dick Cheney."
  • Also on the January 31 edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight, Democratic strategist Robert Zimmerman claimed that Clinton "was just talking about Osama bin Laden. She was talking about all those individuals the Bush White House refuses to go after and target. That's all."
  • In a January 28 article, New York Times asserted that the audience "clearly thought Mrs. Clinton had been thinking of tormentors on the domestic front."
  • In its January 29 article, McClatchy Newspapers also reported that "some" in the audience "thought she was referring to her suffering with a philandering husband," while "[o]thers thought it was meant to conjure up people such as President Bush or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich [R-GA]."

Finally, during a report on Clinton's Iowa visit on the January 29 edition of CNN's American Morning, senior political correspondent Candy Crowley aired a clip of Clinton's response to reporters' questions about the comment. Clinton said: "You know, you guys keep telling me, 'Lighten up. Be funny.' You know, I get a little funny and now I'm being psychoanalyzed." Crowley subsequently stated: "Whatever," adding: "Mostly, this was a flawless maiden voyage for the senator from New York."

From the January 29 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:

STEVE DOOCY (co-host): Yesterday, in Davenport, Iowa, Hillary Clinton said: "What, in my background, equips me to deal with evil and bad men?" Who was she talking about, Fred?

BARNES: Steve, how did I know you were going to ask about that?

Well, you know, it was -- it seemed to be clear to everybody in the audience that she was talking about her husband, Bill Clinton. Look, this is the way in which -- that was a bad joke. This is the way in which her husband, who will give her great tactical advice, does not help. I don't think Americans want to see another melodrama over marriage at the White House again.

GRETCHEN CARLSON (co-host): And Mort, real quickly, though. Maybe it's a monkey off her back right now. She talked about it.

MORTON M. KONDRACKE (Roll Call executive editor): You know, Bill Clinton's going to be around during this campaign. I was impressed. I saw one of those exchanges, one of her town meetings. I thought she got a great reception. People were not turned -- were not turned off by her, did not find her cold and distant and, you know, that kind of thing. She seemed to acquit herself very well, and people were glad that she was there. I think she should have been in Iowa -- I don't know why she wasn't -- a lot sooner than this. She hasn't been there for two years, but she made a good return, I think.

From the January 29, 11 a.m. ET, edition of MSNBC News Live:

O'DONNELL: But about that comment where she said "what makes me experienced to deal with evil men," was she talking about Bill Clinton?

WINTERHOFF: Well, if you were in the room, you actually know that she was repeating part of what the gentleman had asked. So this wasn't her original line. this was a --

O'DONNELL: But who was she talking about? Who are the evil men?

WINTERHOFF: I think she -- it was just -- she was making a joke, and I think the audience understood that.

O'DONNEL: But she said, "I have experience dealing with evil men." Who was she talking about?

WINTERHOFF: But she just repeated what the questioner was saying.

[...]

WINTERHOFF: She made a joke and I think that folks are making a lot bigger deal of it than what it was.

O'DONNELL: I totally respect that, but she did say -- and it was a question about Iran and North Korea -- she did say, "What in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?" And so people -- is she talking about Ken Starr? Is she talking about Bill Clinton? Or like -- who -- I mean, she's obviously saying, "I dealt with bad and evil men in my background." So who is she talking about?

WINTERHOFF: Once again, she was repeating what the gentleman had said.

From the January 29 edition of MSNBC's Tucker:

CARLSON: It was a pretty good line, the first genuinely amusing thing Senator Clinton has said in public in a long time. Then, almost as soon as she said, it, she got busy denying she'd said it.

Her husband? "No," Hillary claimed with a straight face. It had nothing to do with her husband. It was a joke about Osama bin Laden. A joke about Osama bin Laden? Please.

No, you heard it right the first time, ladies and gentlemen. It was a woman subtly mocking her husband, and good for her. God knows he does deserve it. But even a mild dig turned out to be too risky for Hillary Clinton, who retreated to her default position, which is phoniness.

From the January 29 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Mathews:

MATTHEWS: Well, why -- in other words, she's never said she was thinking about all the "vast right-wing" conspirators out to get her, people like Newt Gingrich and all the others who went after her, and [former Senate Majority Leader] Trent Lott {R-MS]. She's never said that she was joking about them. She's just said she wasn't -- and she hasn't actually said yet, has she, that she wasn't joking about Bill, has she? Has she said that?

SWEET: No. She said, "Oh, come on," because somebody said, specifically -- well, somebody in the audience -- you know, when we -- in the interview said, "Is this the bad Bill that she was talking about?" And she then gave a big, chill look -- and boy, that is icy! When you see that coming, that's -- ooh! And she says, "Oh, come on." No one, she said, was thinking that. But people were, Chris.

From the January 29 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

LIASSON: Wait a second. Are you assuming that she was making a joke about her husband?

HUME: Well, who do you think she was taking about?

BARNES: Well, yeah.

LIASSON: Well, I think all the people -- all the men who have attacked her and tormented her. That's just as plausible.

BARNES: No, the press -- no, please, please, please!

LIASSON: Wait a minute, you think that's what she meant? Because I don't think that's how people in the room took it.

BARNES: Well, why was she laughing? She laughed even before the crowd did, it looked like.

LIASSON: I think she was thinking of Newt Gingrich and Republicans.

BARNES: No. Nice try, but no.

KONDRACKE: The press thought that she was dealing with, she was reflecting on the bad Bill, you know, that that's who she was talking about. That's who they all --

LIASSON: Well, that's the press.

From the January 29 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann:

OLBERMANN: Maybe psychoanalyzing ourselves and the voters applies here, not her joke or what she meant, but this lingering aura in the public or at least the media mind that is her husband's administration, an aura for good and for ill. Does she understand the size of that aura? Do we understand the size of that aura?

KORNBLUT: I would say that she certainly does. Her advisers certainly do. The presence of Bill Clinton is everywhere when she is campaigning. He wasn't physically there with her this weekend. She went by herself, no family, juts a bunch of aides, but she referred to him all the time. She referred this "guy from Arkansas who she met in law school." She referred to "Bill," "our administration," really harking back to the '90's.

What you saw with the bad men joke, though, was an example of the lurking potential for people to remember the bad Bill, and I can tell you the press conference was quite uncomfortable when that -- the bad side re-emerged. So, I think their goal now is to maximize the good Bill, minimize the bad Bill, and try and get the most out of the parts of the electorate who still really care for Bill Clinton.

From the January 30 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: About who?

BUCHANAN: It's about Bill, of course.

MATTHEWS: Of course it was. She's denying that.

[crosstalk]

MATTHEWS: You don't compare a guy who kills 3,000 people with somebody who had a little trouble with an intern.

BUCHANAN: Chris, I mean, why is the press all over her when she caught a very --

MATTHEWS: Because she won't honestly admit what she does.

BUCHANAN: Why don't they just let it go? It's a joke. Why do they ask questions?

MATTHEWS: Well, she won't admit that was a joke about Bill.

BUCHANAN: Why do they press her about it?

MATTHEWS: Because, Mr. Defender-of-All-Women, the problem is that she won't admit a candid joke.

BUCHANAN: We all know it was a joke. I wouldn't have asked her who that was about. All the girls knew who it was about --

[crosstalk]

MATTHEWS: The only reason this is an issue is after she went back into her football formation, her huddle backstage with the people around her -- Howard Wolfson, et cetera -- she comes out and says, "Oh, that wasn't about Bill. That was about Osama bin Laden."

BUCHANAN: That's because guys were asking her, "Who's that about? Who's that about? Who's that about?" And they got their pens out. And she should have said, "Look, it was a joke."

MATTHEWS: Why didn't she admit it -- who was the butt of the joke?

BUCHANAN: She should say it was a joke and move out.

MATTHEWS: She didn't.

BUCHANAN: I know she didn't.

MATTHEWS: That's the problem. So you can defend her all you want, but if she doesn't come up clean --

[...]

MATTHEWS: What was the joke?

FINEMAN: The joke was about her husband, obviously.

MATTHEWS: Right!

From the January 30 edition of CBS' The Early Show:

BILL PLANTE (CBS White House correspondent): It was an ambiguous, maybe slightly mischievous answer, so why was the audience laughing?

TRIPPI: I assume she was referring to Bill Clinton. I think a lot of people in her audience assumed that, too.

PLANTE: Or was the sly joke about the current president?

SHEEHY: Well, my guess is she was probably thinking about President Bush.

PLANTE: Or maybe even about someone who caused her and her husband a lot of grief while they were in the White House.

SMITH: I mean, everybody in that crowd thought she was talking about her husband. You know, there were subsequent speculation that she was talking about Kenneth Starr.

PLANTE: The senator just tried to laugh the whole thing off.

CLINTON [video clip]: I thought I was funny. You know, you guys keeps telling me, "Lighten up, be funny." Now I get a little funny and now I'm being psychoanalyzed, I mean --

PLANTE: And when reporters asked directly if she was talking about her husband --

[begin video clip]

CLINTON: Oh, come on.

OFFSCREEN VOICE: That's what they say.

CLINTON: Well, I don't think anybody in there thought that. I'm sorry.

From the January 31 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:

DOBBS: And what about Senator Clinton? Her talking about those evil, bad men?

MOSBACHER: Oh, well, that was unbelievable, I have to admit. I mean --

DOBBS: You mean unbelievably good wit or an unbelievable gaffe? Or --

MOSBACHER: Well, a gaffe. I mean, you know, I don't think you say those kind of things about your husband even if you believe them. Even if they're true, you know, you're supposed to fake it.

ZIMMERMAN: She wasn't talking about her husband.

MOSBACHER: Oh, really?

ZIMMERMAN: That's right.

MOSBACHER: Oh, I'm sorry. Well, then I missed it all. Sorry.

ZIMMERMAN: She was just talking about Osama bin Laden. She was talking about all those individuals the Bush White House refuses to go after and target. That's all.

MOSBACHER: I see.

From the 10 a.m. ET hour of the January 29 edition of Fox News Live:

HILL: All right. So, she makes the comment -- I mean, it clearly looked like it was an intended comment; it wasn't something off the cuff. Did it just serve the job of loosening up people, or did it raise questions?

HARRIS: Well, it obviously raised questions because we're talking about it now, and there's been lots of conversation and buzz about this all morning in various websites and programs and so forth. I think it does highlight the difficulties Senator Clinton is going to have. You know, she does have a sharp sense of humor, and yet every attempt at humor is going to be dissected, analyzed in so many ways. For what it's worth, I thought maybe she was referring to Ken Starr, not Bill Clinton, but who knows?

From the January 29 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:

COLMES: Well, all right, let's talk about Hillary for a second. The fact is -- you probably think she was -- the back of her mind thinking of the evil man she's married to?

MORRIS: No, I don't think it occurred to her. I think that when she said that, she meant bin Laden. Then, when she laughed, she probably thought, "Oh, they're laughing, because they're thinking Kenneth Starr." And it wasn't until the press conference that it dawned on her that somebody could be speaking about her husband.

From the January 29 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:

O'REILLY: What was the evil men comment? What was that all about?

MARY ANN MARSH: You know, that's a comment that could mean almost anything to almost anyone. Some people took it to mean her husband. I think some people took it to mean Dick Cheney.

From the January 29 edition of CNN's American Morning:

CROWLEY: From the theaters to the banners to the lighting, this is a campaign in full swing, where celebrity status brings in the crowds and little is left to chance. All of which makes one odd moment all the odder. The question was about her ability to stand up to dictators.

CLINTON: And in the gentleman's words, we face a lot of evil men, you know, people like Osama bin Laden comes to mind. And what, in my background, equips me to deal with evil and bad men?

CROWLEY: Why were they laughing? And what did she have in mind? She bristled at the suggestion it was her husband.

CLINTON: You know, you guys keep telling me, "Lighten up. Be funny." You know, I get a little funny, and now I'm being psychoanalyzed.

CROWLEY: Whatever. Mostly, this was a flawless maiden voyage for the senator from New York.

CLINTON: Thank you all very much.

CROWLEY: And this coming weekend, the senator from New York sets sail again, this time for New Hampshire for her first visit there since announcing her presidential intentions. Candy Crowley, CNN, Davenport, Iowa.

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