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What Kind of Actress Is Hillary Clinton?

January 15, 2008

I've been following the backwards and forwards surrounding Hillary Clinton's "breakdown" at a New Hampshire diner on January 7 with a mixture of fascination and irritation.

Discussions about whether Clinton's emotion that day was genuine or not have taken up a great deal of space in the last few days. Some people are debating whether she shed tears or simply lost her composure for a second. Others are wondering whether the display, whatever it was, came from a real place inside her or was merely a calculated performance. Others still are holding Clinton's behavior, genuine or otherwise, responsible for winning her the New Hampshire Primary. The most cynical commentators are wondering whethe the moment in the diner will set a precedent among candidates going forwards for reaching for drama at any opportunity in order to steal votes. As one commentator on Blog Critics put it:

On the positive side, maybe her payoff for a high-risk move will inspire other candidates. If we don't get serious ideas from the candidates we can at least get some entertainment value. Maybe John McCain will have a torture flashback, or Huckabee will have to struggle with sudden weight gain, or Giuliani will have a teary reconciliation with his estranged kids, or Obama will get pulled over for DWB, or Ron Paul will find aliens flying his blimp. There are so many cheap, attention-grabbing possibilities. Now that Hillary has opened the door, what's to stop all of the rest of the candidates from charging on through.

The sheer amount of time devoted to the incident in the New Hampshire diner appalls me in many ways. It seems so trivial. Yet I've decided to add yet another voice to the clamoring din in an effort to understand what it is that people were really responding to when they watched Clinton's voice falter and face crumple like a used tissue that day. How was Hillary connecting (or failing to connect) with her audience?

What's interesting about the video footage is that Clinton's body and voice seem to be doing completely different things which, unsurprisingly, send out very mixed signals to viewers.

The first time I watched the video clip, I deliberately did so with the volume off. I couldn't understand why people said that Clinton was crying. There are no signs of that level of emotion in her body. She appears tired and deflated, but definitely not on the verge of tears. Not even close. In silence, she seems composed and appears to be talking about issues, not providing personal insights. Yet there's something very candid about the way she rests her hand on her chin. Her shoulders heave, like she's sighing. She shakes her head and allows weak smiles to flick across her face.

If you listen to her words, though, they sound very forthright. There's an emphasis in them that feels natural yet full of conviction. The body and the words are at odds. Suddenly, though, Cilnton's cadence wavers. It's a tiny moment. It would be barely noticeable but for the fact that the opposition between what we see and what we hear has been so pronounced up to this point, that the sudden alignment of word and action cause a floodgate to open. A crack becomes a chasm and in the blink of an eye, Clinton goes from being the "Iron Maiden" to a "real woman."

The effect is remarkable. The sudden synchcronization of body and voice is so subtle, so beautifully timed, that I find it hard to believe that it was intentional. I just don't think anyone -- even the finest professional actor -- is capable of doing this kind of thing on purpose. Politicians don't even know when they're performing sometimes.

Here's what we can take away from the experience:

1) Politicians can create theatre without even realizing it.
2) The best way to learn about a politician is to turn the sound down on them.



  • My bias is showing, but here goes:

    There are many reasons for thinking that Clinton is calculating (or "triangulating," if you prefer) and disingenuous. I'm not backing her in the primaries.

    But this incident? Not one of them. She wasn't even really "in tears" -- her eyes welled a bit, but she wasn't sobbing. But then, I didn't think Dean really screamed, either.

    What I did find odd and unnerving was HRC's use of the squishy consciousness-raising "You helped me find my voice" victory speech. Which, for me, raised the inevitable question "You've been campaigning on a 'Ready From Day One' and '35 Years of Experience' platform, and yet you've only NOW 'found your voice?'"


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 15, 2008 at 9:47 PM  

  • I think the "voice" she is referring to is one that our culture will allow her to have in its narrow parameters for a woman running for president.

    This is new, for all of us. The context has changed.

    Yes, she has been working hard, and doing good work for many who could use it, for 35 years plus but she hasn't been vigorously campaigning in an American presidential primary for more than a few months. Why not a new voice. She is not, as some might suggest, a robot. And we were able to see that.

    I found the moment genuine. It was all she could do not to cry, but she expressed something real. Let her hair down. Took a breath. How refreshing.

    Look, nobody who does what it takes to get where the candidates are today is free from sin. It is a brutal process, our political race. And we expect such perfection. It is daunting. And this time, there is so much at stake.

    If nothing else, Hillary at least knows where all the bathrooms are in the White House. I say that in jest but the reality is that some of our best thinking happens there. And Hillary has a lot of knowledge that we could use right about now. And, she has good relationships with important world leaders.

    I could go on and on. Barrack Obama seems like a good man. He is certainly a gifted speaker. But what an opportunity we have in Hillary Clinton.

    We have ourselves, as was recently quipped, an embarrassment of riches here. I say we elect them both. A co-presidency. Why not?

    Every candidate calculates. And if any of them told the whole truth and nothing but the truth all the time they would be Dennis Kucinich, who I like a lot but, he is not going to be elected in this country any time soon.

    You can't play if you don't get in the game. The Clintons have shown they can survive the onslaught that is Washington. They have it in them and they know how to get in the game. We need them.

    I think I just found my voice,

    Mr. Stick

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 16, 2008 at 10:16 AM  

  • The next president has before them an extraordinary cleanup job to do. Whoever it is is going to get real dirty. I think it would behoove us to elect someone who knows how that feels, sounds, smells. Let's save Barack's purity for 2016. He will still be fresh by then. But not so fresh. A little more wizened.

    It's gonna get a lot worse before it gets a lot better and the next president needs to have a little of that putrid smell already on them. Hillary has it.

    We Democrats eat our own. Let's get her in there before there is no her to get.

    Barack for Vice President.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 16, 2008 at 11:28 AM  

  • I would point out that Dubya also presumably "knew where the bathrooms were," given that his father had been a tenant at 1600 Penn at one point. And when we're talking about the value of "experience," it bears noting that Cheney and Rumsfeld reeked of experience, which didn't keep them from making bad choices and sticking to them.

    I'd be a hell of a lot more comfortable with Clinton if she could find it within herself to say that her votes for the war and the Patriot Act were bad mistakes (well, they were actually naked pandering for votes, but I certainly don't expect her to go that far in her explanation). There are lots of other reasons I think she wouldn't be a great president, but her inability to admit that she has ever been wrong reminds me a little too much of our current chief executive.

    That said, all this nonsense that the "New Hampshire moment" was something that "humanized" her is the worst kind of misogynist bullcrap and shouldn't be countenanced for a second.

    Also: Obama comes from Illinois. We know from dirty hardball politics here. Believe me. He's not a babe in the woods.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 16, 2008 at 12:51 PM  

  • That's a big, loaded, word you throw out there :


    Yes, I'm sure that sickness exists in the hearts and minds of many. We can see evidence of it all over the internet. Kathleen Hall Jamieson addresses the subject well in a Bill Moyer's Journal transcript:

    But no, not everybody who believes 'the moment' broke through a, publicly, tough veneer and revealed a beautiful, sensitive human, self is a misogynist. It was real and it was nice, and that has nothing, in my opinion, to do with hate.

    Anyway, I like her and I have liked her for years. I hear what you are saying but I am still not convinced she isn't the best choice for right now.

    Of course Barack is tough. I like him too. I want to know more about him. I imagine myself giving up the fight for Hillary and working for Obama. I think it would certainly be more fun.

    But comparing Hillary to Bush is just not fair. Yes, she has made some questionable votes. Some votes she will not apologize for. So who hasn't? She has also worked well with Senators from both sides of the aisle to get some important work accomplished. Its called compromise. It is how Bill Clinton survived for so long and, I suppose, why some people don't like what they think Hillary would do. Has done.

    Wow, I'm so sick of defending her. Why am I writing this? I have my own life. It's Chloe's fault. Damn you Queenie. Look what you have wrought. How dare you.

    Mr. Stick

    ps Dean did yelp. If the audience had been miked, it would have sounded appropriate.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 16, 2008 at 9:03 PM  

  • I believe it is misogynist to describe that moment as "humanizing," because the word implies that Hillary Clinton was something less than human before that happened. (Feminism: The radical notion that women are people.)

    It is as troubling to me as when people describe Obama as "articulate," with the implication being that black men usually aren't. I'm not suggesting that all who use those terms are deliberately being misogynist or racist, but to not be aware of the baggage historically associated with them is problematic.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 17, 2008 at 10:37 AM  

  • My two cents:

    Hillary knew what she was doing when she signed both the Patriot Act and the authorization to use force against Iraq. She knew what was in those bills, but didn't have the guts to oppose them, lest she come off as unpatriotic, which would have obviously ruined her chances for further advance in her field.

    There is less difference between Hillary and George than you think. Both want your money - they just want to spend it on different things to make the world a better place. I think we'd all be better off if they stopped trying to help so much.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 17, 2008 at 11:43 AM  

  • Oh, if

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 17, 2008 at 12:47 PM  

  • Yes, well, quite often the most simple explanation is also the best.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At January 17, 2008 at 12:59 PM  

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