John F. Harris

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  • Media Return To Deriding Hillary Clinton's Laugh

    "The Cackle," "A Record Scratch," And Other Tired Attacks From The Debate

    Blog ››› ››› HANNAH GROCH-BEGLEY

    Clinton and Sanders at the October 13 debate

    Multiple media figures derided Hillary Clinton's laugh during the first Democratic presidential debate, calling it a "cackle" and "a record scratch." During the 2008 presidential race, Clinton's laughter was repeatedly attacked, despite criticism that such attacks were rooted in sexism.

    During the October 13 CNN debate in Las Vegas, Clinton laughed after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders defended her from repeated questions about her use of private email by criticizing the media for fixating on the issue and saying, "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!" Clinton and Sanders shook hands as the crowd applauded.

    The moment has been described by several outlets as a highlight of the night.  

    But several media figures initially focused on Clinton's laugh. BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski tweeted, "oh god the Clinton laugh is out," while the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza wrote, "THE CLINTON LAUGH," and Fox's Sean Hannity tweeted "Omg that laugh."

    Several conservative media figures took it further, calling it a "cackle":

    Attacking Clinton's laughter was a common theme during the Democratic primary before the 2008 election. In September 2007, after Clinton appeared on several Sunday political talk shows and laughed in response to some questions, media figures spent weeks debating and mocking her laughter. Fox News led the charge, with Bill O'Reilly even discussing Clinton's laughter with a "body language expert" who deemed it "evil," and Sean Hannity calling the laugh "frightening."

    The mainstream press picked up on the attacks on Clinton's laugh, with New York Times political reporter Patrick Healy writing an article with the headline "Laughing Matters in Clinton Campaign," in which he described Clinton's "hearty belly laugh" as "The Cackle," calling it "heavily caffeinated" and suggesting it may have been "programmed."

    Then-Politico reporter Ben Smith also described Clinton's laugh as her "signature cackle," while Politico correspondent Mike Allen and editor-in-chief John F. Harris wrote that Clinton's laugh "sounded like it was programmed by computer."

    And New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who has a long history of nasty attacks on Clinton, claimed Clinton's laugh was allowing her to look less like a "hellish housewife" and a "nag" and more like a "wag":

    As Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, once told me: "She's never going to get out of our faces. ... She's like some hellish housewife who has seen something that she really, really wants and won't stop nagging you about it until finally you say, fine, take it, be the damn president, just leave me alone."

    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.

    The list goes on: MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, then-MSNBC host David Shuster, then-MSNBC host Tucker Carlson, radio host Mike Rosen, Dick Morris, the Drudge Report, The Boston Globe's Joan Vennochi, Time magazine's Joe Klein, the New York Times' Frank Rich, CNN's Jeanne Moos, and others all debated or derided Clinton's laughter during Clinton's first run for president.

    Politico's Allen said on MSNBC during all of this that "'cackle' is a very sexist term," and disputed MSNBC's Chris Matthews' use of it in reference to Clinton. Other outlets agreed; Jezebel called out Matthews for his "cackle" criticism and other derisive remarks, asking, "can we agree that no matter what your political allegiances, this is not the way you speak of a woman -- whether she is a senator or not?" Rachel Sklar, writing in the Huffington Post, said at the time "I keep finding sexist Hillary Clinton bashing everywhere I turn," noting that criticisms of the candidate's laughter "turn completely on the fact that she's a woman. 'The Cackle?' So would never be applied to a man. We all know it."

    Unfortunately, the criticism hasn't stopped in the intervening seven years. The Washington Free Beacon has a "Hillary Laugh Button" permanently on its site. The National Journal published in June 2014, many months prior to Clinton declaring her second bid for president, a "Comprehensive Supercut of Hillary Clinton Laughing Awkwardly With Reporters." And conservative tweet-aggregator Twitchy in August mocked "scary as hell" pens which featured "Clinton's cackling head." 

  • Politico's nonsensical Obama hit-piece

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    I'm a little late to the party, but the attempt by Politico's John Harris to throw a bunch of anti-Obama themes agains the wall in hopes of something gaining traction probably can't be scrutinized too much. And while there are individual absurdities contained in the article, the real problem is much broader than the bogus examples Harris uses.

    Sure, there are questionable and overly-simplistic assertions; this is, after all, Politico.

    Like Harris' claim about "The flight of independents away from Democrats last summer," which ignores the question of the extent to which this is a result of existent independents shifting away from Democrats, as opposed to the pool of Democrats becoming more conservative as a result of the ever-decreasing number of people willing to call themselves Republicans.

    Or his linkage of "fiscal discipline" with "spending reductions that would cramp his own agenda and that of congressional Democrats," despite the fact that a significant part of that agenda -- health care reform, which Harris portrays as inconsistent with fiscal discipline -- would actually reduce the deficit.

    Then there's the hilarious disclaimer on the entry about the Obama White House being "dominated by brass-knuckled pols": "This is a storyline that's likely taken root more firmly in Washington than around the country." Hilarious because that could aptly describe much of Harris' piece. Are we really supposed to believe, for example, that all across America people are lamenting Barack Obama's failure to be an "American exceptionalist"? Please.

    And the utter inanity of describing the White House's "delight in public battles with Rush Limbaugh" as "Chicago-style politics." For decades, "Chicago-style politics" has referred (fairly or not) to things like voter fraud and corruption. Now John Harris waters it down to criticizing a loud-mouth hate-radio host? Was George H. W. Bush engaging in "Chicago-style politics" when he denounced "sleazy" questions from CNN? Was his son doing so when he told people not to believe what they saw on CBS news? Of course not; such a description would have been nothing short of stupid. But now Politico applies it to similarly mundane actions by the Obama White House. Why? Because he's from Chicago, I guess. So anything he does is "Chicago-style politics," if you're desperate to make him look bad.

    And there's this: "If you are going to be known as a fighter, you might as well reap the benefits. But some of the same insider circles that are starting to view Obama as a bully are also starting to whisper that he's a patsy. It seems a bit contradictory, to be sure." Yeah, to be sure. Thank you, Politico, for explaining to us that Barack Obama is both damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. Really insightful stuff. Harris acknowledges "In truth, most of these episodes do not amount to much," so I won't bother responding to them.

    But none of that is the real problem with Harris' piece. The real problem is simple: Why? You could write an article about storylines that could be damaging to any politician at any time -- particularly if you get to include, as Harris did, potential storylines. (And you could probably find less inane explanations than these for most politicians.) Why Barack Obama, why now?

    Absent a reason -- and none is given -- the Politico article isn't analysis and it isn't information; it's a hit piece. It's an attempt to crystalize negative sentiment among Washington insiders, if not Americans.

    There are people whose job it is to wake up in the morning and list things bad things about Barack Obama, for no reason other than making Obama look bad. Their paychecks say "REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE" on them, and they do not pretend to be journalists. Then there are Politico reporters -- though it is at times awfully difficult to tell the difference.

    UPDATE: I see that Politico's Ben Smith reflexively calls Harris' piece "smart" (probably a smart move, given that Harris is editor-in-chief.) But then Smith subtly undermines his boss's work: "It probably doesn't hurt the White House that many of these narratives contradict one another." Yeah, probably not.

  • Politico uncritically cited anonymous White House aides touting Bush "vindication" on stem cells, air traffic improvements

    ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    The Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei wrote that unnamed "Bush advisers are considering ways to call attention to scientists' announcement, which the White House believes was lost in Thanksgiving week, about discoveries that could lead to the creation of stem cells without embryos -- a vindication, in the view of Bush's aides, of his reservations about approving broader federal funding of embryonic stem cell research." But Allen and VandeHei did not note that the senior author of the paper that announced that discovery, James Thomson, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that the research "[f]ar from vindicat[es] the current U.S. policy of withholding federal funds."