From cleavage to "cackle"? Media find new focus in coverage of Hillary Clinton
Research ››› ››› SARAH PAVLUS
Following her appearance on all five Sunday political talk shows on September 23 -- NBC's Meet the Press, CBS' Face the Nation, ABC's This Week, Fox News Sunday and CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer -- political reporters and other media personalities have seized on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-NY) laugh as a new subject of attention. In his October 2 column -- headlined "Chucklegate" -- Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz contended that "Jon Stewart is now setting the agenda for presidential campaign coverage," suggesting that the media flap over Clinton's laughter began with a September 25 segment on Comedy Central's The Daily Show. Similarly, Kurtz stated in his column in the October 3 print edition of The Washington Post that "Jon Stewart, setting the pace for political journalism, kicked things off last week by assembling a grab bag of giggling and guffawing when the senator appeared on all five Sunday talk shows." In fact, before the Daily Show segment aired, audio and video clips of Clinton's laughter had already been highlighted by the Republican National Committee, the Drudge Report, and the radio shows of conservatives Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, as well as such cable news programs as MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews and Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor.
Starting with reports in The New York Times and the Politico, and progressing to many other outlets, commentators speculated about whether Clinton's laughter is evidence of her "calculating" nature, with some characterizing her laugh as a "cackle" -- defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "the sound made by a hen after laying an egg."
Occasional comments about Clinton's laughter did appear in the media prior to September 23, but not with the frequency and intensity present since Clinton's Sunday show appearances. For example, following Clinton's comment at a January 28 campaign stop in Iowa -- "[W]hat, in my background, equips me to deal with evil and bad men?" -- U.S. News & World Report's Paul Bedard wrote in his February 4 "Washington Whispers" column that "many didn't believe her aides who claimed it proved she's a jokester." Bedard added: "Well, as they say in Missouri, show me. Let's start with her laugh. 'People think that big belly laugh of hers is not real, but it is,' pleads a friend. 'She has a deep laugh that just makes you cackle.' And apparently, it's heard often by staff." Additionally, following the "Democratic Candidate Mashup" online debate co-hosted by Yahoo!, The Huffington Post, and Slate in early September, Rush Limbaugh highlighted what he called Clinton's "cackle" from the debate on the September 13 edition of his show, and a clip from the debate was posted on YouTube on September 16 with the headline, "Cackling Hillary Clinton."
Some journalists have criticized this latest media focus, which follows the media's earlier fixation on Clinton's neckline, as Media Matters for America documented (here, here, here, here, and here). Their criticism is included as part of a timeline of the coverage set out below:
During the roundtable discussion after Clinton's appearance on the September 23 edition of Fox News Sunday, Fox News Washington managing editor Brit Hume said Clinton's laughter during her interview with host Chris Wallace earlier in the show was "disarming," "engaging," and "attractive:"
HUME: I have to tell you, Chris, I thought she was in terrific form. I can't remember -- if she could handle the interview that you did with her as well as she did, I don't know why she wouldn't be on here all the time, because you threw her tough questions and she handled them all, it seemed to me, very smoothly, particularly that first question, which had to be a little bracing and unexpected, about why are they so hyper-partisan based on the excerpt from your interview with Bill Clinton which had become so contentious, and she had answered that by bursting out laughing, which is always disarming, always engaging and always attractive.
WALLACE: And the response I often get to my questions, which is just gales of laughter.
Following Clinton's appearance on all five Sunday political talk shows, the Republican National Committee released a "research briefing" headlined, "Hillary: No Laughing Matter: On Sunday Morning Shows, When Not Laughing Off Important Questions, Hillary Hides From The Facts And Her Own Record," which featured links to video clips of Clinton laughing on Fox News Sunday and Face the Nation. From the briefing:
Fox's "Fox News Sunday": In Response To Question About Her And Her Husband's Partisan Nature, Hillary Laughs At Interviewer:
CBS' "Face The Nation": When Asked Whether Her Plan Is A Step Toward Socialized Medicine, Hillary Giggles Uncontrollably:
In their September 23 articles on Clinton's performance on the Sunday shows, both New York Times reporter Patrick Healy and Politico reporter Ben Smith mentioned Clinton's laugh. In a post published on the Times' political blog The Caucus, Healy wrote: "Mrs. Clinton generally did fine -- there were no major gaffes, no flashes of a chilly or combative side. When Republican attacks were mentioned, she stuck to her trademark belly-laugh -- though she overdid it a tad on CBS's 'Face the Nation.' " Smith described Clinton's laugh on Fox News Sunday as her "signature cackle."
During the 7 a.m. ET hour of the September 24 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, host Joe Scarborough brought up Clinton's laughter on Fox News Sunday:
SCARBOROUGH: Boy, Hillary Clinton goes on Fox News Sunday yesterday and laughs at Chris Wallace --
MIKA BRZEZINSKI (co-host): Well --
SCARBOROUGH: -- throughout the interview. Isn't that something?
BRZEZINSKI: Well, that was, like, her tenth interview. Maybe she was a little punchy.
WILLIE GEIST (contributor): She's a little punchy.
BRZEZINSKI: She did all the Sunday morning shows.
SCARBOROUGH: Chris Wallace, at the end, what did he ask her there at the end that made her crack up?
GEIST: He said -- he said, "Give my best to the president." And he wasn't kidding, but she just erupted in laughter. Said, "He'll love to hear that, Chris."
SCARBOROUGH: Yeah. They're big Fox News fans, you can tell.
BRZEZINSKI: Well, maybe --remember he and -- I think he and Chris Wallace had a fight.
GEIST: Right. Right. It was a year ago.
BRZEZINSKI: Yeah, yeah. OK. All right.
That afternoon on his radio show, Limbaugh aired a compilation of clips of Clinton laughing on the September 23 Sunday shows, including clips from both Fox News Sunday and Face the Nation. Prefacing the clips, Limbaugh said his "montage" was "the most newsworthy, noteworthy thing to come out of all of her appearances yesterday." After airing the audio, Limbaugh said, "That's about it, folks. If you want four years of that, you need to stop and think seriously about what's ahead."
Sean Hannity also repeatedly played an audio clip of Clinton's laughter on his nationally syndicated radio show, saying of Clinton's laugh, "What is that? Where did that come from? Isn't that frightening? And this went on a number of times in these interviews." After playing a clip of Clinton's laugh seven times, Hannity said, "It's -- you know what it is? She went on [the Sunday shows] with one goal this weekend. You know what the goal was? To convince people she's nice." Later in the show, a caller requested that Hannity post the audio clip of Clinton laughing on his website because the caller's "daughter's going to be a witch this year for the first time" for Halloween and needed to "work on her ... shrill witch laugh." Hannity responded, "Now be -- be careful. Be careful. See, look, one of the things Hillary always likes to do for herself is create victimhood. You know, we refrain on this program from creating victim status for Hillary, here, by ad hominem atta -- look, I'm gonna tell you what -- I'll put it on the website as a special request for you."
Later that day, Clinton's laughter on the Sunday shows was mentioned on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor and Hannity & Colmes and on MSNBC's Tucker and Hardball.
As Media Matters previously noted, on the September 24 edition of The O'Reilly Factor, Fox News "body language expert" Tonya Reiman asserted that Clinton exhibited "evil laughter" during her Fox News Sunday interview with Wallace.
On Hannity & Colmes, Fox News contributor and nationally syndicated columnist Dick Morris commented, after a clip of Clinton's Fox News Sunday appearance was aired: "I thought you were going to put on the laugh, the cackle." Rather, the clip that was aired featured Clinton responding to Chris Wallace's question on Fox News Sunday, "Senator, you have refused to criticize the MoveOn.org ad about General Petraeus, and in fact, this week you voted against a Senate resolution denouncing it." Clinton said, "I did vote for a resolution that made it clear I do not condone and do condemn attacks on any American, impugning their patriotism."
On Tucker, guest host and MSNBC correspondent David Shuster asked Congressional Quarterly contributing editor Craig Crawford: "Craig, how did Hillary do on these five Sunday shows yesterday? I mean, aside from the laugh with Chris Wallace, and she did face some tough questions, there. How did she do overall?" Crawford responded, "The laugh was great. She had to be thinking, 'Fox of all people is calling me partisan?' That doesn't seem to be the meaning of the laugh. Going on all of these shows, she was very careful not to make news, which I think one reason -- all they wanted out of this was the news to be that she did the shows, and that she is in command of Washington."
On Hardball, host Chris Matthews said of Clinton's laugh, "I think she was laughing because she was talking to Chris Wallace, who went after her husband like you couldn't believe that time a few months ago. She's laughing at the notion there might be a political problem for the Clintons when they go up against Fox." Washington Post staff writer Anne Kornblut replied, "I think that's true," and continued, "Yes. And the -- that was quite a laugh first thing in the morning yesterday." Matthews then added, "I know. I think she was really mad at who was asking it. That's my guess." Kornblut responded:
KORNBLUT: Yeah. I think -- I mean, you could tell by the look on her face that it was not just a sincere "I'm laughing with you." But, you know -- but there's a history there. And I think what she got credit for was going on the show in the first place, after what he went through with her husband, coming back and saying, I'm going to take -- that was the first question out of the gate yesterday morning. And she took it. She laughed, maybe a little bit too much, but she did laugh. She didn't get back in his face.
On September 25, Comedy Central's The Daily Show featured a segment on Clinton's laughter during the Sunday shows.
The September 26 editions of MSNBC's Hardball and Tucker again included mentions of Clinton's laughter on the Sunday shows.
On Hardball, MSNBC correspondent David Shuster reported, "This past Sunday, Clinton reinforced the image of invincibility by appearing on all five network Sunday talk shows. She made little news, but surviving without a scratch was itself a headline. And Clinton even managed to laugh in the face of Fox News."
Later on Hardball, host Chris Matthews discussed Clinton's laughter with Joan Walsh, editor in chief of Salon.com, and Chuck Todd, NBC News political director. Both Matthews and Walsh said they "liked" Clinton's laughter on the Sunday shows. Todd said, "Look, the laugh stuff, it's humanizing and all that stuff." Earlier in the show, Todd commented that Clinton's laugh was her "version" of former President Ronald Reagan's "there you go again."
On Tucker, Cliff May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said that Clinton "gets on the TV and she laughs almost in a giddy manner to show 'I am so approachable and likable.' "
In a September 27 column, Dick Morris and Eileen McGann wrote that Clinton's laughter on the September 23 edition of Fox News Sunday was "loud, inappropriate and mirthless ... a scary sound that was somewhere between a cackle and a screech." Morris and McGann continued:
Just as Hillary's answers are scripted, so is her "spontaneous" laughter. This is truly learned behavior -- laughing -- or pretending to laugh at will. Over the past 15 years, she's perfected the art of responding to people, questions and networks that she doesn't like. In the past, she would sneer and answer sarcastically, as in, "Maybe I should have stayed home and baked cookies." But those days are over. Now she smiles constantly and dissolves into a flood of loud giggles. It's been a big part of her media training.
The mainstream media hasn't had much to say about the laughing candidate. But can you imagine if Rudy Giuliani responded to a network interviewer by laughing loudly and hysterically for five seconds? No doubt The New York Times would seriously wonder about his state of mind. But they don't find it odd with Hillary.
It'll likely be a long time before we see the real Hillary again. So next time you hear her special laugh, think about what it really means.
In a September 28 Slate article headlined, "Bwah-Ha-Ha! What's with Hillary's laugh?" John Dickerson posted an audio clip of Clinton's laugh and wrote, "Call it a caterwaul, call it a bray, call it what you will, the sound the Democratic front-runner makes when she performs the actions of mirth are now a part of the political conversation." Dickerson continued:
Comedians see the laugh the way editorial cartoonists view Barack Obama's ears -- an enormous target with endless possibilities. The laugh is, um, highly idiosyncratic. And it's something new to make fun of, since Clinton's hairstyles, pantsuits, makeup, and cleavage have been pretty well pawed over.
Clinton's ideological enemies have had fun, too. Matt Drudge posted a sound clip of it, and Sean Hannity raised the pressing question of whether Clinton's laughter was presidential. Hannity should be reminded that George Bush's Beavis laugh was such an accurate imitation of the teenage cartoon reprobate he should have had to pay royalties. Like all aspects of the Clinton campaign, there's sexism in the giggle critique: Women can only laugh in certain preapproved ways. Historically, men have categorized women's laughter as a way to diminish them -- they either cackle like a witch, or they titter like a schoolgirl.
Liberals, always on the lookout for signs of artifice from Clinton, are concerned that the laugh is staged to make the candidate appear more lighthearted and approachable. If so, it's certainly not working. The laugh sounds forced -- tacked on to warm Hillary's persona.
If bwah-ha-ha is a strategy, an aide should stop it now, before someone gets hurt. Alternatively, the campaign should indignantly mention the criticism of the laugh in a fund-raising letter, the way aides did the Washington Post article about Clinton's cleavage.
Clinton also needs to ditch the laugh because it has become her tell. Like all poker players, politicians have a sign that they're bluffing. For Newt Gingrich, the tell was when he said "frankly." Dick Cheney uses that same word to dissemble, too. "In all candor" is another signal that a hedge is coming. Nixon had lots of tells--his tense smile, the pod of sweat on his upper lip -- it was as if his tiny little truth instinct was trying to break free any way it could.
Hillary's laugh appears during discussions of her vote to authorize force against Iraq and her failed 1993 health-care plan, and during attacks from rivals. All politicians laugh a little to buy time -- regular humans do it, too -- but the whole point of political evasion is to get voters to focus on something else. In this way, Clinton's laugh backfires. It signals to voters that they should pay attention, because a dodge is coming.
On September 30, The New York Times' Pat Healy, Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd, The Boston Globe's Joan Vennochi, Time magazine's Joe Klein, and the Politico's Mike Allen and John Harris all wrote columns or articles that mentioned Clinton's laugh.
In his September 30 Political Memo, headlined, "The Clinton Conundrum: What's Behind the Laugh?" Healy wrote: "Stepping offstage, she took questions from reporters, and found herself being grilled about whether she was moderating her pro-choice position. And suddenly it happened: Mrs. Clinton let loose a hearty belly laugh that lasted a few seconds. Reporters glanced at one another as if they had missed the joke. But nothing particularly funny had occurred; it was, instead, a deployment of the Clinton Cackle." Healy then wrote, "But friends of hers told a different story: She has this fantastic sense of humor, you see, but it's too sarcastic to share with the general public because not everyone likes sarcasm," adding: "So, instead of alienating Iowans who might not vote for edginess, Mrs. Clinton goes for the lowest-common-denominator display of her funny bone: She shows that she can laugh, and that her laugh has a fullness and depth." However, later in the article -- after citing anonymous "advisers" saying that Clinton "needs ways to respond" to criticism "without appearing defensive or brittle" -- Healy wrote: "[L]ess often but more notably, she copes with the pressure by using what friends have come to call the Cackle." As an example, Healy cited the Democratic presidential debate, during which Clinton "laughed [at a question] before answering, as if to minimize the matter."
Rich wrote: "Then there was that laugh. The Clinton campaign's method for heeding the perennial complaints that its candidate comes across as too calculating and controlled is to periodically toss in a smidgen of what it deems personality... Now Mrs. Clinton is erupting in a laugh with all the spontaneity of an alarm clock buzzer. Mocking this tic last week, 'The Daily Show' imagined a robotic voice inside the candidate's head saying, 'Humorous remark detected -- prepare for laughter display.' However sincere, this humanizing touch seems as clumsily stage-managed as the Gores' dramatic convention kiss."
Dowd wrote: "That's why Hillary is laughing a lot now, big belly laughs, in response to tough questions or comments, to soften her image as she confidently knocks her male opponents out of the way. From nag to wag."
In a Boston Globe column headlined "That Clinton cackle," Vennochi wrote, "HENS CACKLE. So do witches. And, so does the front-runner in the Democratic presidential contest. Former Bill Clinton adviser Dick Morris recently described Hillary Clinton's laugh as 'loud, inappropriate, and mirthless. . . . A scary sound that was somewhere between a cackle and a screech.' Politico's Ben Smith referred to Clinton's 'signature cackle.' Conservative radio hosts routinely play Clinton's 'cackle' on their radio shows. ... Not too long ago, Clinton's cleavage attracted all the attention. She wore a tank top under a blazer and her modest confirmation of breasts became the subject of serious presidential campaign analysis. Now, the critique is moving from chest to throat, and to a sound associated with female fowl. What's next, speculation that Clinton will cry if Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says something mean about her?"
In a Swampland post, Klein wrote, "I share many of Rich/Dowd's stylistic concerns about Clinton, but these are ultimately peripheral. Yes, the laugh is awkward (when staged) and yes, her campaign is focus-grouped up the wazoo. But then, so is Obama's and the campaigns of all the other candidates flush enough to hire political consultants. (Obama's a more elegant speaker than Clinton but about as spontaneous as a fence post, which is a real problem for a candidate who is supposed to be the Next New Thing.)"
In the Politico, Allen and Harris wrote: "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) last week flew into a sudden burst of media wind shear. After months of mostly rosy portrayals of her campaign's political skill, discipline and inevitability, the storyline shifted abruptly to evasive answers, shady connections and a laugh that sounded like it was programmed by computer. ... The New York Times ran a Sunday story about what it called 'the Cackle' -- it is actually closer to a guffaw -- suggesting that it is the senator's technique for disarming persistent questioners. ... Even Jon Stewart bared fangs on 'The Daily Show,' splicing together clips from Sunday morning shows that his network, Comedy Central, calls 'creepy delayed laughter' on a segment called 'Hillary's Laugh Track.' He suggested the candidate was bionic. Such mockery represents a distinct turn in her coverage of this year."
On October 1, ABC's Good Morning America, CNN's Situation Room, Fox News' Hannity & Colmes and MSNBC's Hardball all featured segments on Clinton's laughter.
From Good Morning America:
KATE SNOW (weekend co-anchor): Uh-huh. A lot of people -- we've been talking about it for weeks here, Robin. Depending on who you ask, Hillary Clinton is either having a really good time out on the campaign trail, or she's the master of a shrewd political skill: disarming her critics with the gleam in her eye and a roar straight from the belly.
CLINTON: I am running for president.
SNOW: She's taking hits from all sides. At debates.
SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D-CT): And I'm ashamed of you, Hillary.
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: I also disagree with Senator Clinton.
SNOW: On the Internet.
SNOW: On the trail.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL): Even the senator of New York wasn't clear about the Yankees.
GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA): Hillary Care continues to be bad medicine.
SNOW: So, no surprise, Hillary Clinton has an arsenal ready to take on her attackers. There's the slow giggle, the "I can't believe he just said that" chuckle of disbelief, and then there's the full Hillary.
WALLACE (Fox News Sunday clip) A partisan view of politics. [Clinton laughs]
SNOW: Jon Stewart had a field day on The Daily Show.
[begin video clip]
STEWART: To the untrained eye, that looks like a satellite delay. But that was not a satellite interview. This is what it really is.
WALLACE: Send my best to the president.
FEMALE VOICE: Humorous remark detected. Prepare for laughter display in two, one, go. [Clinton laughs]
[end video clip]
SNOW: But when you're the frontrunner with a lot of baggage, laughter can also be a savvy political move.
CHRIS LEHANE (Democratic strategist): She is someone who, who finds some humor in these things, but also is pretty smart and pretty adroit to be able to take these questions, slough them off and move on to what she wants to talk about. And I think the laugh has actually served as a pretty effective tool.
SNOW: Back in January, she made a joke about dealing with evil and bad men. And when reporters kept pushing about who she was referring to --
SNOW: OK. Maybe we are overanalyzing a little bit here. One Clinton spokesperson said sarcastically yesterday, "Breaking news, the senator laughs." But as Mark Twain once said, Robin, the human race has only one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.
SNOW: That's Mark Twain's quote. And in politics --
SNOW: -- you need all the weapons you can get.
ROBERTS: Yes, you can. But she has a bit of a point there when a lot of people were critical of her because she wasn't showing us a sense of humor. And then she does do that--
ROBERTS: -- she gets --
SNOW: And when you're the frontrunner --
ROBERTS: Oh, yeah.
SNOW: -- you, you get it from everybody.
ROBERTS: All right. Well, you got a nice laugh, Kate.
SNOW: Thank you.
ROBERTS: See -- see there? We're gonna -- we won't overanalyze that. It's about 45 minutes after the hour. We'll be right back. It was too easy. I had to go there.
From The Situation Room:
BLITZER: And there's been a lot of focus lately on her laughter. We've heard her laughing at the various debates, in some of the interviews. She did five Sunday talk shows a week ago Sunday. What do you make of this?
GLORIA BORGER (CNN senior political analyst): I saw she laughed during your interview too, Wolf --
BLITZER: Yes, she did.
BORGER: She did --
BLITZER: She laughed at all of them.
BORGER: She did. She laughed at all the interviews. I think that it's a contrivance, when you look at it and watch all these interviews. It's a perfectly legitimate way to try and deflect a tough question that perhaps you might have been asking or any of the other interviewers might have been asking. But -- and it's a way to kind of, I also think, diminish the questioner, if you will -- oh, my god, ha ha ha, what a funny question. But I think in the end, now that we're all paying attention to it, it's not going to be as effective as it may have been at the start of the campaign.
BLITZER: Gloria, thanks very much.
[begin video clip]
MOOS: Is it a cackle? Or is it a chortle?
BOB SCHIEFFER (CBS Face the Nation host): It would require among other things that every American --
CLINTON: I'm sorry, Bob.
WALLACE: Let me ask you about health care.
CLINTON: Yeah, I'd love for you to ask me about health care.
GEORGE STEPANOPOULOS (host, ABC's This Week): What's your response?
BLITZER: I wonder if you want to respond to the former mayor?
STEWART: I'm joyful.
MOOS: Hillary's contagious laughter spread to the editorial page of The New York Times, where heavyweight columnists snickered. Wrote Frank Rich: "Now Mrs. Clinton is erupting in a laugh with all the spontaneity of an alarm clock buzzer." Critics say she's trying to undercut difficult questions.
BILL MAHER (host, HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher): Why should Americans vote for someone who can be fooled by George Bush?
MOOS: While supporters say she's got a great sense of humor. Seems to run in the family.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're a disaster.
BILL CLINTON: [laughing]
MOOS: Back when Russian President Boris Yeltsin called the press a disaster, Bill Clinton was beside himself. Some say Hillary's laugh is as overdone as Al Gore's kiss. But maybe Hillary should kiss off the criticism. Though her campaign wouldn't comment, she may feel like she did after the time she said she'd had experience with bad men.
MOOS: Hillary is not the only front runner to be accused of calculated mannerisms.
GIULIANI: This is my wife calling, I think. Hello, dear.
MOOS: That was September. This was June.
GIULIANI: This is my wife on the phone.
GIULIANI: I'm talking to the members of the NRA right now. Would you like to say hello?
GIULIANI: Say hello.
GIULIANI: Talk to you later, dear, I love you.
GIULIANI: OK, dear, I love you, 'bye.
MOOS: But at least no one described Rudy as cackling. Cackling is what witches do. "I like Hillary's laugh," read one Internet post. "What was she laughing about?" read another. And for once, Web shorthand LOL, laughing out loud, seemed perfect. At least they didn't say COL, cackling out loud. Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.
From Hannity & Colmes:
HANNITY: And some call it a chuckle, while others label it a cackle. It seems that Hillary Clinton's distinct laughter has many asking if the maniacal giggling is scripted to make you like her. Dick Morris will sound off straight ahead.
HANNITY: Hillary Clinton's maniacal laughing fits on Fox News Sunday have sparked speculation that she is trying to get voters to believe that she's not the cold, calculating candidate that the press has often characterized her as. But will Hillary be laughing all the way to the White House, or will the campaign tricks turn her into a laughingstock in this election? Joining us now, author of Outrage, former Clinton adviser Dick Morris. Be sure to check out his latest column, by the way. It's free on DickMorris.com.
Is she trying to manipulate people? Unfavorables too high?
MORRIS: Well, I have to quote my wife Eileen's characterization of that laugh she wrote in our Fox News column. "A loud, inappropriate, and mirthless laugh, a scary sound that was somewhere between a cackle and a screech."
The reason she does that is that her speech coaches are sitting with her and saying, "Listen, any time someone says something that gets under your skin and you're feeling a little bit angry, laugh."
MORRIS: No, don't smile, laugh, because you need to give a verbal expression to it. And if all you give is words, they're going to come out as sarcastic and hurt you.
HANNITY: Does it work?
MORRIS: It works. It's like a timing mechanism, and she defuses her anger through laughter. And that laughter you're hearing is really alternative to cursing out the questioner.
HANNITY: All right, but doesn't it sort of begin to become a caricature if she uses it too much?
MORRIS: Yeah, well, it does, but it's better than saying, "Well, I didn't stay home and bake cookies and serve tea" --
HANNITY: That's true.
MORRIS: -- which is what she used to do.
ALAN COLMES (co-host): I want to get back to this mocking Hillary for her laugh, ridiculing her for that. Either she's a dour, cold and calculating -- with the phrase you used, or you're going to ridicule her for laughing. So this is a no-win situation for her. Let me just finish, and then I'll give you a chance to respond. Newt Gingrich, coming on the show in a few minutes, will say, "You've got to fight this battle ideologically." If you're going to go after Clinton on personal issues, you're going to lose.
MORRIS: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right. You know, one of the things that I think needs to be said about Hillary Clinton -- and I want to say it now -- is that, if she is elected president, one of the first things she's going to do is either double the capital gains tax so it's 30 percent, not 15, or repeal it entirely so it's ordinary income taxed at 40, because that will be the new rate. As her election gets closer, as it becomes more likely she's going to win, there's going to be a stock market crash. And when she wins, it's going to be Black Wednesday, because what's going to happen is that Americans will want to sell their stocks so they can get 15 percent tax, not 30 percent tax.
COLMES: All right, so you're predicting a stock market crash based on what Hillary's going to do. Now, it's fair to debate capital gains. That's a fair debate. But you want to make the issue about a calculated laugh and make that and ridicule her for that, that's not going to help Republicans win.
MORRIS: No, no, I'm -- yeah, I don't -- I don't think so, but the laugh was too good, fun to avoid.
COLMES: It seemed fine to me.
MATTHEWS: What do you make of the cackle? Drew?
DREW WESTEN (author, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation [Public Affairs, June 2007]): Well, I think it -- in some ways, it's a little like the [Howard] Dean "scream." I think it can get blown out of proportion. It does sound like a defensive laugh. It sounded like that in the debate when she was -- when Mike Gravel took her to task for that Iran vote. But boy, I'll tell you, I wouldn't want my every move scrutinized the same way she's getting it scrutinized now.
MIKE ALLEN (Politico chief political writer): Chris --
MATTHEWS: Go ahead. You go ahead. Go ahead, Mike.
ALLEN: Yeah, Chris, first of all, "cackle" is a very sexist term. It's hard to believe that you would talk about --
MATTHEWS: No, I --
MATTHEWS: -- wait, wait, wait. Look, let me tell you something. I've got a cackle. I have a hoot. Norah O'Donnell, my colleague here, has a cackle. I love cackles, OK?
ALLEN: All right.
MATTHEWS: I don't consider it sexist. Drop that line --
MATTHEWS: I'm not going to get in trouble for "cackle" being female-specific. What do I have, a hoot? What is that thing I do -- they do on Saturday Night Live when they make fun of me, a hoot? You know, I can't -- I can't pretend to do it. I just do it when I hear something ridiculous. But go ahead, Mike.
ALLEN: I promise not to laugh, Chris, or --
MATTHEWS: No, go ahead. Go ahead. Keep taking your shots.
ALLEN: But it is a guffaw, and it has been very effective. It's a way for the senator to deflect questions that either are tough or sound tough or are rude --
ALLEN: -- or could be trouble, and not only does she take the spotlight off herself, but it serves to impugn the questioner. So it's worked very well --
MATTHEWS: Impugn the questioner? I love that. I love that because somebody said that the other day. Patrick Healy of The New York Times yesterday said that what Hillary's really doing when she's going up against somebody like Chris Wallace -- and this is her perspective -- is saying, OK, you're from Fox. OK, you took my husband into a little pistol fight a couple weeks ago, and you're asking me if I'm hyper-partisan? Give me a break. Her way of saying "give me a break" to Chris Wallace is to cackle. Do you buy that, Mike?
ALLEN: Well, and the other thing that that article pointed out is it looks contrived because she laughs in surprise at questions that she's heard before --
ALLEN: -- and taken seriously. And it's the artifice, the contrived nature --
MATTHEWS: I know.
ALLEN: -- of the Clintons --
MATTHEWS: But I'm hoping --
ALLEN: -- that these pundits still have under their craw from years ago.
MATTHEWS: I know, but Drew, I'm hoping it's real because I really liked the cackle when she did it to Chris and -- because I love to be rivals with everybody. But I've also heard that she cackled when she was talking to Bob Schieffer, which made no sense. I can't figure her out. Is the cackle killing her? You think it's a distraction. What is it?
WESTEN: Well, it's --
MATTHEWS: We'll know if she stops cackling because then we'll know it was a tactic.
WESTEN: Well, but Chris, also --
MATTHEWS: If she keeps cackling, we'll keep talking about it, so I don't think she can win this baby. I don't know what to say.
WESTEN: Well, you know, when it indicates defensiveness is when she runs into trouble. I thought when -- the cackle in response to Mike Gravel's comment -- Mike Gravel was actually raising a really interesting --
MATTHEWS: Oh, yeah.
WESTEN: -- point, and it was right on the mark, and that --
MATTHEWS: Hey, I was with him on that one, by the way.
WESTEN: I'm sorry? That sounded like -- that sounded more like kind of defensive laughter there than it did --
WESTEN: -- an attempt to change the subject.
ALLEN: But Chris -- Chris, the reason the guffaw is fine is it's been part -- until now, I think she was misserved by some satellite delays and some other problems with those last Sunday interviews. But until now, it works fine. It's been the softening of her image. I've watched on your show clips of her four, eight, twelve years ago. It was a very different Senator Clinton --
MATTHEWS: Oh, yeah.
ALLEN: -- we're seeing now, a much more likable, personable person, and that's very important for her.
MATTHEWS: Hey, Mike, Drew, I'm warming up towards her, despite how hard I get on this show, because it's my job to play hardball and be tough on all these guys. But I do think she's so much more appealing as a political figure after all these years of putting up with Bill. Anyway, thank you very much -- he's been her sparring partner, maybe, not her trainer. Anyway, Mike Allen, thank you, Drew Westen. Both of you please come back a lot.
Salon's Walsh wrote a blog post headlined "The nag, the witch, and the media," in which she stated: "I winced Sunday when I read Maureen Dowd calling Clinton a 'nag,' and Joan Vennochi, in the Boston Globe, comparing Clinton's suddenly controversial laugh to the cackle of 'hens' and 'witches.' If David Brooks or David Broder started throwing around terms like 'witch' or 'nag' when talking about Clinton, they'd be castigated as sexist throwbacks, but Dowd and Vennochi can get away with it? To be fair, both female columnists could try to argue that they were just playing off male doubts about Clinton, but the two nasty columns served to reinforce stereotypes, not dispel them."
Additionally, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz addressed coverage of Clinton's laughter in his online live discussion forum, "Media Backtalk." From Kurtz's October 1 webchat:
Philadelphia: Why does the media have such a right-wing slant? Do you really think people want to hear about John Edwards hair, or Hillary's laugh? Why not tell us about the Lieberman-Kyl amendment? Tell us what that bill means as far as war with Iran. Talk about issues instead of fluff.
Howard Kurtz: The Hillary's laugh mini-flap began after she did a lot of belly-laughing during her five Sunday show interviews last weekend and Jon Stewart made fun of it on the Daily Show. Others, including me, picked it up from Jon, and I don't think he's been accused of being a right-wing tool.
Enough is enough, U.S.: I'm crying uncle here! Okay, we get it -- there is no aspect of Sen. Clinton that is off-limits. But this brouhahah about her laugh is crazy. What is driving this? Could it be that she may actually think it's funny that reporters are tripping over their self-satisfied selves to get her to slip up? Oh, if they only did that to Bush...
Howard Kurtz: She *could* actually think it's funny. Or she could be using laughter as a way of defusing tough questions. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Boston: Putting aside for the moment the question of whether laugh analysis is serious journalism, is it appropriate for journalists to use sexist terms like "giggle" and "cackle" to describe Hillary Clinton's laugh, as Patrick Healy did in the New York Times? "She giggled, giggled some more, and then could not seem to stop giggling. "Sorry, Bob," she said, and finally unleashed the full Cackle."
Howard Kurtz: What, you'd rather be debating her cleavage? You should listen to the sound online and make your own judgment on whether journalists are being humor-impaired here.
On October 2, Kurtz revisited the coverage of Clinton's laughter in an online column headlined "Chucklegate." From Kurtz's column:
Hahahaha -- here's a funny one.
Jon Stewart is now setting the agenda for presidential campaign coverage.
No joke! The pack has been following him in recent days. That's either because he's sharper than your average MSMer when it comes to video analysis, or because he's got a small army of kids poring over the TiVo for ridicule-worthy sound bites.
Thus it was that the "Daily Show" strung together clips of Hillary Rodham Clinton laughing--loudly, uproariously and sometimes oddly--during her Full Ginsburg of Sunday show interviews last week. (There was also a great bit depicting her as a robot.) That 30 seconds made clear, in a way that mere words could not, that the Hillary laugh was a calculated tactic to deflect tough questions and perhaps soften her image in the process.
I used the sound on "Reliable Sources" Sunday. The New York Times did a piece on what it called the Clinton Cackle. "Good Morning America," "Hardball" and "Hannity & Colmes" (Sean called the guffaw "maniacal") weighed in yesterday. Now the controversy -- Is she real? Is she a phony? Do we want to listen to that laugh for the next five years? -- is No Laughing Matter.
Yes, of course it's silly. From cleavage to cackling. What's next, debating the way she colors her hair?
But here's what is really going on: Sen. Clinton is being depicted in the press as the inevitable Democratic nominee and, therefore, a good bet to become the 44th president. The media want more of a primary race -- never discount that as a factor -- but the country is trying to decide if it feels comfortable with another President Clinton. And so journalists are examining her personality quirks precisely because she is doing so well, and because it's more fun than analyzing her health plan.
Additionally, CNN re-aired Moos' October 1 segment on Clinton's laughter, and CNN Headline News' Glenn Beck also featured a segment on it. From Glenn Beck:
BECK: Hillary has been getting a lot of attention in the news lately, but not for her health care plan or for the $5,000 she just wants to magically give every newborn baby in the country -- which we, of course, can afford -- or for the $27 million her campaign has raised in the last quarter. No, America is finally starting to pay attention to the real issues that matter to the future of our country, namely Hillary Clinton's laugh.
I`ve never noticed it, but critics have. They've called it -- and I'm quoting -- "less of a laugh and more of a cackle." Some have been even a little more cruel as to compare her laugh to the Wicked Witch of the West, which is just a little unfair. Here is the actual Wicked Witch of The Wizard of Oz.
MARGARET HAMILTON (video clip from the film The Wizard of Oz): I`ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!
BECK: OK. And here's the wick -- the junior senator from New York.
[clip of Hillary laughing]
BECK: OK, maybe I was wrong. Nevertheless, I'd like to come to Hillary's defense here. I know at times -- many times I've been less than kind to her, but her laugh isn't something she should be ashamed of. I think it's actually one of her best qualities. It makes her seem almost, oh, I don't know, human.
[clips of Hillary laughing]
BLITZER: Let her tell us, if you were president, Senator Clinton, what would your husband do?
HARRY SMITH (CBS' The Early Show co-anchor): We remember those ads from during your --
MIKE GRAVEL (Democratic presidential candidate): You're not going to get another shot at this, because what happens if this war ensues? We invade, and they`re looking for an excuse to it. And Obama was not even there to vote.
TIM RUSSERT (host of NBC's Meet the Press): Senator Clinton, I want to give you a chance to respond.
BLITZER: I wonder if you want to respond to the former mayor.
BLITZER: What would your husband do?
[end video clip]
BECK: And your little dog, too.
On October 3, the print edition of The Washington Post featured a column by Kurtz on Clinton's laugh on the front page of the Style section, headlined "Hillary Chuckles; Pundits Snort: Clinton's Robust Yuks Lead To Analysis of Appeal of Laughter." From Kurtz's column:
Forget the cleavage. It's now about the cackle.
No joke: Hillary Clinton's laugh is now being analyzed, scrutinized and, yes, mocked as if it were a sound barrier on her glide path to the Democratic presidential nomination: Is it real? Is it fake? Is it a diabolically clever attempt to portray her as a human being?
What a hoot.
Jon Stewart, setting the pace for political journalism, kicked things off last week by assembling a grab bag of giggling and guffawing when the senator appeared on all five Sunday talk shows, from a barn outside her Chappaqua, N.Y., home. As Clinton was seen bursting into belly laughs-- sometimes oddly and abruptly -- at queries by the likes of Bob Schieffer and Chris Wallace, the "Daily Show" host likened her to a robot switching into chuckle mode when aggressive interrogators needed to be neutralized.
Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of the punch line, examining whether The Laugh met some vaguely defined standard of acceptability.
"Depending on who you ask," ABC's Kate Snow said on "Good Morning America," "Hillary Clinton is either having a really good time out on the campaign trail, or she's the master of a shrewd political skill disarming her critics with the gleam in her eye and a roar straight from the belly."
Fox's Sean Hannity said Clinton's "maniacal laughing fits on 'Fox News Sunday' have sparked speculation that she is trying to get voters to believe that she's not the cold, calculating candidate that the press has often characterized her as."
On MSNBC's "Hardball," author Drew Westen likened the spectacle to the infamous Howard Dean scream, saying: "I think it can get blown out of proportion. It does sound like a defensive laugh."
The Clinton campaign doesn't view this as a thigh-slapper. "She's got a great laugh," said spokesman Jay Carson, "but given the serious issues facing this country -- the mess this administration has gotten us into in Iraq, growing economic woes and millions without health care, to name a few -- we don't think voters are going to decide on their next president based on who has the most melodious laugh."
The subtext here is that the media have collectively decided that the wife of the 42nd president is the inevitable nominee and a good bet to become the 44th Oval Office occupant. Lacking much of a horse race, since Clinton has maintained a 20-point national lead over Barack Obama all year, journalists are resorting to a classic general-election question: Are Americans ready to have this woman in their living rooms every night for four years? Are they comfortable with her personality? Do they like her voice?
Plus, examining her personality quirks is more fun than deconstructing her stance on Iraq. And with Bill Clinton making the television rounds himself -- he appeared on two of the talk shows this past Sunday -- anchors get to debrief him about her funny lines.
Sometimes, as Freud might have said, a laugh is just a laugh. But not in the hothouse of a presidential contest.
The Hillary humor issue first surfaced soon after she announced her candidacy in January, when Clinton drew laughter by telling an Iowa salesman who asked about her capacity to handle the world's evildoers: "What in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?''
"You guys!'' she told reporters after being repeatedly quizzed about the line. "I thought I was funny. You guys keep telling me, lighten up, be fun. Now I get a little funny, and I'm being psychoanalyzed.''
Much of the critical buzz has come from liberal commentators, who are using the laugh as a metaphor for the candidate's persona.
"The Clinton campaign's method for heeding the perennial complaints that its candidate comes across as too calculating and controlled is to periodically toss in a smidgen of what it deems personality. . . . Now Mrs. Clinton is erupting in a laugh with all the spontaneity of an alarm clock buzzer," writes New York Times columnist Frank Rich.
Time magazine's Joe Klein sees "a major media style-assault on the senator," writing: "Yes, the laugh is awkward (when staged) and yes, her campaign is focus-grouped up the wazoo. But then, so is Obama's and the campaigns of all the other candidates flush enough to hire political consultants."
Lest anyone think this amounts to harmless high jinks, Slate's Dickerson used his column to deliver a blunt warning:
"If bwah-ha-ha is a strategy, an aide should stop it now, before someone gets hurt."
Or maybe he was joking.
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