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First Lady of the Lamp


Claim:   Hillary Clinton threw a lamp (or a book) at her husband in a fit of anger.

LEGEND

Origins:   During Inaugural Week 1993, the hot gossip of the moment centered on Hillary Clinton. According to a prevalent whisper, the land's new First Lady had pitched a lamp at her husband during a fight in the White House. Just barely moved in, the Clintons had supposedly gone at it like cats and dogs. Some said the argument erupted over the President's ogling one of the celebrities at a pre-inaugural show. Others asserted the fight kicked off over whether Hillary's offices would be located in the
critical West Wing or elsewhere in the White House. Frequently, the story included a subplot about antagonism between Hillary and her Secret Service guards, who had supposedly leaked the tale.

The story moved across the city and blanketed the country in short order. Unlike other gossip about the new residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, this tidbit endured, eclipsing even the ongoing rumors about Bill's attraction to and possible affairs with women in Washington. (Stories about Bill's interest in gals other than his wife would pop up at various times throughout his two terms, but it was not until his second term that any of them was accorded much weight. During that first term these rumors generally died on the vine, which is surprising given how many different rumored liaisons there were.)

The rumor about the lamp moved into the print media on 19 February 1993 when the Chicago Sun-Times reported:
Seems first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has a temper to match her hubby's. Wicked Washington whispers claim Hillary broke a lamp during a heated late night argument with the president. Not to worry: The lamp was in the family quarters, belonged to the Clintons and "wasn't a priceless antique, or anything like that," says a White House source.
Notice that in this early incarnation, Hillary merely broke a lamp during an argument with Bill; she didn't launch it at him. The attempt to defuse the tale by characterizing the lamp as one of low value, and a personal possession to boot, actually works the other way — it focuses more attention on the actions of the people involved by resolving what would otherwise be nagging questions about the value of the property destroyed and speculation on whether it had been a historic White House piece.

Unlike the "wandering eye President" rumors, the lamp story was a keeper. By March, it had found its way into a number of major publications, and by summer it had achieved the status of topic joking references were made to on late-night television. Yet even before it was disseminated by these major pop culture outlets, a great number of folks outside the political community had come to hear it. In the manner of all stories too juicy not to repeat, it had sped around the country along the informal, untraceable verbal routes all such stories are quickly transmitted across.

Gossip does not remain fixed; someone is always changing the details. By March 1993, the first print mutation appeared in the Washington Times, transforming the lamp into a book, possibly even a Bible (a pointed touch, given the widespread rumors about Bill Clinton's sexual infidelities), and noting that "Tale-tellers say blood was drawn." (The "book" version was already circulating orally and had been briefly mentioned in a 19 March 1993 CBS This Morning segment.) Newsweek soon after ran an account that described the First Lady as throwing "a lamp, a briefing book or a Bible" at the President, adding the further detail that Hillary then lit up a cigarette to punish her smoke-allergic husband. Another version given in the Washington Post around the same time mutated the whisper even more, stating the rumor as "[T]he Clintons variously throwing books, lamps and punches at each other." (This change altered the story from an angered wife flinging an item at her husband to a marital brouhaha involving both parties pitching things and coming to blows.)

The Baltimore Sun added they had heard from a Washington reporter that Hillary had thrown an urn, not a lamp, and a drawing accompanying the Washingtonian's article about the rumor showed the First Lady standing on Bill's Oval Office desk and aiming a lamp at his head while a broken urn sat on the floor. When Hillary Clinton hosted a June 1993 televised tour of the White House with interviewer Katie Couric, the latter kiddingly requested that Hillary point out where she'd been standing when she threw a lamp at Bill. The First Lady deftly responded, "Well, you know, I'm looking for that spot, too."

The Washingtonian concluded the thrown-lamp rumor began on Inauguration Day, with Senate Republicans waiting in a room next to the Clintons overhearing a fight between the couple that included Hillary's shouting at Bill and threatening to throw something at him. Additionally, the Washingtonian reported a Secret Service agent claimed Hillary had pitched a Bible at him for driving too slowly.

Almost as interesting as the rumor itself is an examination of why this particular tale resonated with the general population to the extent it did. Gail Collins, who presented a masterful job of research and dissection of the tale in her 1998 Scorpion Tongues, had this to say:
The lamp story grew and grew because Hillary Clinton stirred up anxiety in many Americans, and the story about her smashed lighting fixture helped them express it without directly confronting the things that were bothering them. Mrs. Clinton was a new kind of First Lady who made it clear she planned to have a policy-making role in the administration. She was carving out that job at a time when the nation hadn't resolved its own feelings about how women should mix the duties of career and marriage. The gossip stirred up many voters' own unresolved concerns about working wives, powerful women, and the proper role of the First Lady. By passing along the rumor that Mrs. Clinton had physically attacked the president, people were expressing their secret fears that she (and maybe by implication all women) would try to push her husband aside and run things herself.
The New York Times summed up the then-prevalent view of Hillary as "a lamp-throwing Delilah, emasculating her weak husband." This aptly presented why, once the rumor was up and running, it continued to be repeated — it confirmed an image of the First Lady that was already widely suspected.

As to where the rumor might have come from, in May 1993 columnist Molly Ivins wrote the following, which she'd harvested from an article in Time about the Clintons' first one hundred days in the White House:
A Republican consultant told a network newscaster that his job was to make sure Hillary Clinton is discredited before the 1996 campaign. Each day, anti-Hillary talking points go out to talk-show hosts. The rumor machine is cranking out bogus stories about her face (lifted), her sex life (either nonexistent or all too active) and her marriage (a sham). Many of the stories are attributed to the Secret Service in an attempt to give the tales credibility.
Ivins made the point that prior to this story's being bruited about Hillary, she'd heard it about another (unnamed) political wife. John McCaslin of the Washington Times identified that political wife as the first lady of West Virginia, Rachael Worby, who married Governor William Gaston Caperton III in 1990 (just after he divorced his first wife) and then saw her clashes with her state police detail become public news fodder in 1992. Unless lamp-heaving is a common occurrence at such rarified heights, perhaps someone confused one First Lady with the other.

Kate Andersen Brower's 2015 book The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House recounts three instances of the First Lady's supposedly hurling objects (including a book and a lamp) at the President, in part due to her ire at revelations of her husband's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky:
Brower describes a scene that took place "shortly after" the [Lewinsky] affair went public. A White House maid discovered blood all over the president and first lady's bed, and called in a residence staffer. Per the book, the blood was Bill's; he had to get stitches to his head. "He insisted that he'd hurt himself running into the bathroom door in the middle of the night," the book states.

In the second book-throwing incident in The Residence, a volume "came flying out of" the bedroom while the first lady was in it. It's insinuated that the tome was the infamous edition of "Leaves of Grass" that Bill Clinton eventually gave to Lewinsky and that the first lady had discovered the gift intended for her husband’s mistress.

"We're pretty sure she clocked him with a book," one worker told Brower.
But as we noted earlier, tales with identical details (i.e., Hillary threw a book at her husband, drawing blood in the process) had already been circulating years before the Lewinsky affair, so we have to wonder how it was that Bill Clinton apparently never learned to scram (or at least duck) when confronted by an angry spouse with a penchant for book-throwing and deadly aim. Moreover, as the Washington Post's Emily Heil noted in her summary of The Residence's account of Bill's alleged book-beaning:
Another element of the story that raised flags with some veteran Clinton watchers? If the president did get stitches, they were well hidden — there's no indication in news reports at the time that anything appeared amiss with the president's head. (And this was a press corps near-obsessed with the president’s health; his allergies were frequently the subject of scrutiny, and even his hearing aids made headlines).
Could the lamp rumor have been a deliberate attempt by political opponents to undermine the First Lady by fabricating a yarn that invoked the very bogey(wo)man whom the nation feared was lurking behind the mask? Or were others taken in by a piece of gossip laying responsibility for this whisper at the feet of the Republicans? And could there have been something to the story, at least an overheard verbal argument between the Clintons during which mention was made of throwing something?

Barring shards of a lamp being unearthed, no one will ever really know. Hillary and her people have always denied the story, but the point is always made they could do no less. Denials from that side of the rumor are next to worthless.

Even so, the last word should go to Mrs. Clinton. As she said to Barbara Walters in a 1996 interview: "I mean, you know I have a pretty good arm. If I'd thrown a lamp at somebody, I think you would have known about it."

Barbara "the power behind the thrown" Mikkelson

Last updated:   13 April 2015

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Sources:

    Clift, Eleanor and Rich Thomas.   "The Not-So-Secret Service."
    Newsweek.   5 April 1993   (p. 43).

    Collins, Gail.   Scorpion Tongues.
    New York: William Morrow, 1998.   ISBN 0-688-14914-6   (pp. 1-5, 8, 21).

    Heil, Emily.   "That 'Hillary Clinton Threw a Lamp/Book/Bible' Story Has Been Circulating for Ages."
    The Washington Post.   9 April 2015.

    Ivins, Molly.   "In the Search for Targets, Everyone Is Fair Game."
    The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.   8 May 1993   (p. A17).

    Rich, Frank.   "Whose Hillary?"
    The New York Times.   13 June 1993   (p. F70).

    Romano, Lois.   "The Reliable Source: We've Heard That ..."
    The Washington Post.   30 March 1993   (p. E3).

    Simon, Roger.   "Hillary's Displeasure: Did Bill Really Urn It?"
    The Baltimore Sun.   29 March 1993   (p. A2).

    Smith, Harry.   "Sally Quinn Sees Lack of Social Whirl in Clinton White House."
    CBS This Morning.   19 March 1993   (7:00 AM ET).

    Zwecker, Bill.   "'Hot' Rumors Dog Clintons."
    Chicago Sun-Times.   19 February 1993   (p. 18).