A weird thing happened in Iowa this week. Hillary Clinton was campaigning for president - no, that's not the weird thing - and she paraphrased a question from the audience about what in her experience prepared her to deal with "evil and bad men." Before she could answer, the audience burst into laughter, and Clinton joined in.
It was such an awkward moment, much of the commentariat hasn't figured out exactly what to say about it, starting with Clinton herself. At first she tried to explain that she was thinking of Osama bin Laden and Bush's inability to capture him. Later, she claimed she was making a joke - just not about her husband.
From my own viewing of the video - you can find it on YouTube and elsewhere - Hillary wasn't making any joke at all. She was merely the butt of one and laughed along with the crowd - without getting the joke - in an excruciating "I meant to do that" sort of way.
When asked whether the joke was about Bill, she said, "Oh, come on. Well, I don't think anybody in there thought that." But of course everyone thought that. Liberal pundits, spinners and the audience members who talked to the press afterward all said that the unspoken punch line was Bill Clinton. The Wall Street Journal's Jackie Calmes writes: "Several Democrats afterward said they interpreted her delivery as a charmingly funny allusion to her husband's past marital misbehavior."
If Hillary doesn't see that, she's a very bad politician indeed. And, truth be told, I think she is a bad politician in the sense that she is incapable of connecting with audiences the way, for example, her husband can. The most powerful emotional impression she makes on most people isn't compassion or warmth or sympathy - the hallmarks of a politician who's good in a room - but discipline. She comes across as stiffer than Trent Lott's hair and more tightly wound than a rubber-band ball. Even sympathetic reporters write about her as if her id were a tiny little general in an immense war room plotting every move on maps sprawled out in front of her. Clinton's inadvertent joke wasn't part of her plan, even though the audience in her town halls and Internet chat sessions is pre-selected. And when forced to explain something off-script, she wobbles like a tightrope walker who missed a step.
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