By PATRICK HEALY
The New York Times
September 28, 2007
It was January 2005, and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton had just finished a solemn speech about abortion rights — urging all sides to find “common ground” on the issue, and referring to abortion as “a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women.”
Stepping offstage, she took questions from reporters, and found herself being grilled about whether she was moderating her own 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 we’d missed the joke.
This was my first close encounter with Senator Clinton, and with The Cackle. At that moment, the laugh seemed like the equivalent of an eye-roll — she felt she was being nit-picked, so she shamed her inquisitors by chuckling at them (or their queries).
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. (An example from personal experience: Mrs. Clinton sometimes likes to tweak people for missing an obvious point by saying to them, “hello!”) 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.
Perhaps. The reality is, Mrs. Clinton is the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination right now, and the commensurate political attacks and criticism are coming at her from all sides. She needs ways to respond without appearing defensive or brittle, her advisers say.
She often responds to attacks with a counterargument: At the televised debates, she has pushed back at criticism from her rivals by saying there is little difference between herself and them (over the Iraq war, say), and recalibrates the discussion by focusing on the differences with President Bush rather than those among the Democrats. Doing so makes her look like a spokeswoman for a unified Democratic position — even though there are real differences among the candidates, as she showed at Wednesday’s debate by refusing to go into the same detail as some rivals about Social Security’s future.
And then, less often but more notably, she copes with the pressure by using The Cackle. At Wednesday’s Democratic debate, for instance, former Senator Mike Gravel complained about her vote on an Iran resolution and said he was “ashamed” of her. Asked to respond, Mrs. Clinton laughed before responding, as if to minimize the matter.
Last Sunday, meanwhile, she appeared on all five of the major morning talk shows. I don’t know what she had for breakfast, but her laughter was heavily caffeinated at times. Chris Wallace, of Fox News, first pressed Mrs. Clinton about why she was so “hyper-partisan,” and that drew a huge cackle. (Coming from Fox, that question is pretty funny, her aides said.) But at another point Mr. Wallace switched gears and said, “let me ask you about health care,” and she responded, “Yeah, I’d love you to ask me about health care” — and then let it rip, again, a bit quizzically.
The weirdest moment was with Bob Schieffer on the CBS News program “Face the Nation” when he said to Mrs. Clinton, “you rolled out your new health care plan, something Republicans immediately said is going to lead to socialized medicine.” She giggled, giggled some more, and then couldn’t seem to stop giggling — “Sorry, Bob,” she said — and finally unleashed the full Cackle.
The Schieffer moment seemed particularly calculated because Mrs. Clinton has most certainly not laughed, in other settings, when she has been accused of pursuing socialized medicine. She faced that accusation charge during a forum in Las Vegas this summer, for instance; she turned frosty and traded barbs with the audience member who made the accusation. It was clearly no laughing matter in that venue.
Jon Stewart skewered Mrs. Clinton on his “Daily Show” this week with a compilation of her outbursts from the Sunday morning shows. He noted that some people found her to be “some kind of synthetic being that cries mercury,” and he tweaked some of her laughs as a robotic expression of her strategic goal: To convey to the audience, “I’m joyful!”
“She’ll be our first president that you can’t spill water on,” Mr. Stewart said.
Clinton advisers find the interest in her laugh a little laughable. They fall somewhere between bemused and irritated by questions that suggest Mrs. Clinton is less than genuine — such as whether her use of laughter during an interview is a way for her to undercut a serious question or to avoid answering it altogether.
“Seems pretty basic — that’s the way she laughs,” one Clinton adviser said. “She has a good sense of humor about the process.”
Fred Hochberg, a fund-raiser, supporter, and friend of Mrs. Clinton, put it this way: “You know what, feigning a laugh as in feigning a tear is really hard to do. It feels genuine to me. If you don’t think something is funny, it’s really hard to laugh on cue.”
“With tough subjects, I use humor as a social lubricant to move situations forward,” he added. “Laughter is part of having a sense of humor and has that same ability, to move things along.”
Programmed or not, Mrs. Clinton seems to share this view. At a news conference in Iowa last winter, she was peppered with questions about whom she was referring to when she playfully said that she had experience dealing with bad and evil men.
“You guys!” she said to reporters, chuckling, after the third question on the topic. “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.”
It was a pretty amusing push-back — though it also prompted one reporter to become more direct and bluntly ask if she had been referring to her husband. “Oh c’mon,” she said, tightening up a bit. The silly Hillary can disappear into the sober Hillary in a New York minute.