Journalist Bob Woodward of Watergate fame argued Wednesday that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is struggling to overcome opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) because Clinton “shouts” too much.
The comment sparked a redux of the sexist media coverage of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, as MSNBC’s Morning Joe commentators launched into a lengthy discussion that touched on many of the common tropes about Clinton “screaming,” acting “unnatural,” and being “feisty.”
“There is something unrelaxed about the way she is communicating,” Woodward told the panel Wednesday morning. Joe Scarborough jumped in, asking, “Has nobody told her that the microphone works? Because she always keeps it up here. The genius of Reagan was…Reagan kept it down low.”
Cokie Roberts of NPR broke in to note that the footage they were referring to was at a noisy rally: “These are rallies, though, and it’s hard to do that at a rally.”
“When she’s loud and feisty, she’s trying to support this narrative that she’s fighting for us,” Kristen Soltis Anderson added to the analysis.
Woodward later brought up Clinton’s volume again after the conversation turned to whether or not voters trust Clinton. “I’m sorry to dwell on the tone issue, but there is something here, where Hillary Clinton suggests that she’s almost not comfortable with herself,” he said. “And self-acceptance is something that you communicate on television.”
“Go back and watch Margaret Thatcher in Britain in 1975,” Scarborough interjected. “Often, she would find a man in her party that she would reduce with little more than a whisper. But you were right though. Hillary is always up here and again, it’s just not natural to her.”
“She could make a case for herself if she would just kind of lower the temperature and…get off this screaming stuff,” Woodward argued.
Former DNC head Howard Dean then came on the program to defend Clinton’s demeanor, suggesting that she would be under less scrutiny if she were a man. “Oh my God, that’s desperate,” co-host Mika Brzezinski scoffed.
“When Republicans watch Hillary Clinton speak, they are so turned off that it actually allows them to underestimate her strength as a candidate, because they think, how can anyone possibly like her?” Anderson said.
Clinton has previously discussed her struggle with the sexism she faced from the media during her 2008 campaign, when she was accused of being “shrill” and “nagging.” Commentators openly argued that her menstrual cycle would impact her decisionmaking. Morning Joe was a leader in those discussions; Scarborough often referenced the “Clinton cackle” and another panelist cracked a joke that Clinton reminded everyone of their “first wife in probate court.”
The “screaming stuff” trope has followed Clinton throughout her political career. As Rebecca Traister notes, Clinton’s criticism of Sanders’ single-payer health care plan has been meme-ified as “Hillary’s Mean Scream,” echoing a common perception that women who sound assertive are angry. In a less subtle attack, the New York Post ran a cover during the Benghazi hearings of Clinton looking angry with the headline “No Wonder Bill’s Afraid: Hillary explodes with rage at Benghazi hearing.”
The sexism of the 2008 campaign was so heavyhanded that it inspired the Women’s Media Center to draw up a guide to gender neutral coverage of female politicians for reporters. Research done by a WMC affiliate found that simply mentioning a female candidate’s appearance, whether to disparage, praise, or notice, hurts her election chances. The center has also identified certain words, like “feisty” and “scold,” as female-specific dogwhistles that can impact public perception.
Clinton has said she has learned to stop worrying about the attacks. “It is just never ending,” she told Diane Sawyer in an interview. “You get a little worried about, okay, people over on this side are loving what I’m wearing, looking like, saying…I’m done with that. I’m just done.”