Julian Zelizer: Clinton supporters rightly claimed it was unfair to blow up Sunday's stumbling incident
But it might be better for her to address the issue head-on, rather than try to ignore it, he says
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
So get ready for a battle royale. Given the potential for these debates to matter, expect the very worst from these candidates and anticipate three events unlike anything we have experienced before.
Her supporters rightly claimed that it was unfair to blow up the incident. Candidates get exhausted, they get sick, and they can slip from time to time. It does not mean anything about their overall health or their campaign. It is also unfair to take a small moment like this and turn it into a 24-hour story, creating concerns that something bigger is really wrong. There is no evidence at this point to give credibility to any such claims.
But fair or not, these moments can matter. Just look at former President Gerald Ford, one of the most athletic persons to ever inhabit the White House.
Ford, who had become president when Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, was taking on Jimmy Carter in his bid for re-election. Ford was facing a tough challenge. The economy remained in terrible shape and Americans perceived that their country’s standing overseas remained tarnished as a result of Vietnam. Given that Ford never won a national election (he had been appointed by Nixon to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew when he resigned) there were doubts about how he would perform, and many voters didn’t really know much about him. Ford barely survived a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan, who attacked Ford as an establishment centrist who was not much better than the Democrats. And the Republican Party was in tatters as a result of the Watergate scandal.
Concerns that Ford was not a strong leader were also fueled by physical images that Americans had seen of the president. Politicians had been making jokes for some time that Gerald Ford was not the smartest politician around. “Jerry Ford is a nice guy,” Lyndon Johnson liked to say, “but he played too much football with his helmet off.”
Added to these quips came jokes about his physical strength. Although Ford was athletic – he had been an all-star football player at the University of Michigan and remained in excellent shape – the moments that seemed to capture the attention of the media were when he slipped during his presidency. In a ski trip in Vail, Colorado, the cameras caught the president wiping out on the slopes. At the start of a diplomatic visit to Austria, the president slipped on the stairs coming down from Air Force One on a rainy day. He also fell another time while walking up the stairs of Air Force One. He bumped his head getting onto a helicopter. “It’s not hard to find Jerry Ford on a golf course. You just follow the wounded,” comedian Bob Hope joked in reference to Ford’s famous stray golf balls.
“Every picture that appeared of me in the newspaper was when I was on my fanny falling down,” Ford said. Indeed, the media had a field day.
Comedian Chevy Chase, who was one of the stars on the then-new show “Saturday Night Live,” developed an entire character around the president who could not seem to stand on his own two feet. His portrayal was of a bumbling fool, not an inspiring leader of the United States. Chase premiered the parody on November 8, 1975.
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Speaking to Time magazine, Chase said in 1976 that “Ford is so inept that the quickest laugh is the cheapest laugh, and the cheapest is the physical joke.” The president’s team tried to respond by inviting Chase to perform at a White House dinner and having Press Secretary Ron Nessen appear on the show. On April 17, Ford appeared at the start of the show, in a pre-recorded message: “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night.”
But the images and the humor had an impact. According to James Baker, who ran Ford’s campaign, “no one who knew the president ever quite understood Chevy Chase’s Saturday Night Live impersonation of him as a genial dolt who stumbled over doorsteps and big words. Unfortunately, the caricature – particularly the physical humor – took on a life of its own.” President Ford was incredibly good-natured about the show and even made jokes at his own expense.
Of course, the physical falls were certainly not the main reason that Ford lost. The problems of the economy and of foreign policy, as well as the general disgust with Washington and the Republicans, were much more important. So, too, was Carter’s skillful campaign as an outsider. But the images of Ford falling, combined with the news coverage and the comedy, played into voter doubts about whether he was the kind of strong leader who could help the nation get out of the troubled times it faced. Americans voters were desperate for strength and gravitas, and those images played to the critics who said that Ford had neither.
In certain respects, Clinton’s video could be even more problematic. It takes place at a moment when the 24-hour internet media creates the space and time needed to show this moment over and over again. It also comes in the middle of a campaign where Republicans, including the presidential nominee, have circulated endless rumors about the Democratic candidate’s health and whether the campaign is hiding the facts. Even though the claims come from the same kind of evidence that gave rise to the birther movement, in an era of polarized politics they tend to stick. Trump has also amplified gendered criticism that the first female presidential nominee does not have the “stamina” to be president. The video and the story give conspiratorialists – in their minds – something to point to to make their point that Clinton does not have the “stamina,” as Trump said it, to be president.
How should the Clinton camp respond?
It should certainly not discount the problems Sunday’s events could create for the campaign. While the press coverage might not be fair, it’s part of the election game. Coming at a moment when the polls seem to be tightening in the battleground states, it will be important, once she is rested and recovered, for Clinton to come out and directly rebut the kinds of questions that are now being raised about her.
Indeed, Clinton might even look to Ronald Reagan, who, after appearing confused and old in his first debate against Walter Mondale, came back with a zinger in debate two, telling America: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Rather than ignoring the issue, Reagan took it head on, and in that case used humor to turn the entire story against his opponent. It will be important for Clinton to find a way to do the same.
Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.