October 15, 2007

Hillary: On The Face Of It


“God had given you one face, and you make yourself another.”

–Shakespeare (Hamlet)

When the “Hillary laugh” business came up about two weeks ago, I didn’t pay much attention.  It seemed mindlessly superficial.  (Hendrick Hertzberg’s TOT piece in the New Yorker provides an excellent chuckle-by-chuckle summary, by the way).

I’m taking notice now, however, for the way its wormed into recent campaign imagery, and especially, the newswire stock.  What got me thinking something was up was a Barnum-and-Bailey-clown Hillary last Wednesday in an eCanadaNow story on the Iowa race.  Then Friday, I came across an outlandish, laughing-out-loud Hillary in the LAT print edition attached to an otherwise serious story on her Iranian Guard vote.  (The shot above is a representative AP shot grabbed off Yahoo News last night taken Monday a week ago in Cedar Rapids.)

What I think is happening is that the media, as well as the opposition, is looking for a stereotype with which to pigeonhole Clinton.  The search, on the part of the right wing, is to develop a toxic characterization.  (Remember, it was FOX News, after Clinton’s interview with Chris Wallace, that got this ball rolling.)  The media’s motivation, I believe — given its aversion to complexity — is to fix on a simple behavioral thumbnail with which to frame Hillary’s personality.

I do want to comment, briefly, about the behavior itself, because I feel journalists love — but generally fail at –playing psychologist.

The key here — it’s that complexity thing again — is that Hillary’s laugh is not “unidimensional.”  In other words (referencing the Hertzberg write-up), I agree with Arthur Schlesinger, Bill Clinton and Jackie Kennedy that Hillary has a good sense of humor, and likes to really guffaw at times.

But I also agree with Brit Hume that, in other instances, Hillary’s laugh (and it was this variant, I believe, that started this whole business) is a typical political device, meant to simultaneously disarm and engage (and, as necessary, discreetly call bullshit.)

Finally, I also agree with Frank Rich and the Politico that — at still other times — Hillary’s laugh, when she’s in her overly rigid and scripted mode, can be (unconsciously) more affected than natural.

All that said, God help any of us if we had to account for any number of expressions frozen from second to second.  Unfortunately for Clinton, however, the visual media — hot on this bandwagon now — can’t help but mine ever more curious samples.

And the more than thrilled (and less than innocent) right wing can’t help but field-test various explanation, from “the put on,” to the look of hysteria to the shrill cousin of the Dean scream.

(image:  Charlie Neibergall/AP. October 8, 2007.  Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  linked image: Mary Ann Chastian/AP.  October 12, 2007. Columbia, S.C. caption: Democratic Presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton smiles as Theronee Foster, 6, stands next to her during a campaign stop at ‘Wise Young Minds After School Program.  Via YahooNews)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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