Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Legend: Soon after the Clintons moved into the White House, Hillary threw a lamp at her husband in a fit of rage.
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
The story moved across the city and blanketed the country in short order. Unlike other gossip about the new residents of
The rumor about the lamp moved into the print media on
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
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
Gossip does not remain fixed; someone is always changing the details. By March 1993, the first print mutation appeared in the Washington Times. In this account, the lamp was transformed into a book, possibly even a Bible. (The "book" version was already circulating orally and was briefly mentioned in a
The Baltimore Sun added it 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 sits on the floor.
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 which included Hillary shouting at Bill and threatening to throw something at him. Further, 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.The New York Times summed up the then-prevalent view of Hillary as "a lamp-throwing Delilah, emasculating her weak husband." This aptly presents why, once the rumor was up and running, it continued to be repeated
As to where the rumor might have come from, in May 1993 columnist Molly Ivins wrote about 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 makes the point that prior to this story's being bruited about Hillary, she'd heard it about another (unnamed) political wife. Unless lamp-heaving is a common occurrence at such rarified heights, that tends to support the thesis that this snippet is more mean-spirited gossip than reality.
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 the nation feared was lurking behind the mask? Or had Time itself been 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
Barbara "the power behind the thrown" Mikkelson
Last updated: 2 January 2005
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