(Artvoice 2 November 2000)

Lazio’s Finger 
by Bruce Jackson

The Great Debate

You perhaps witnessed the moment and the act that may very well cost Rick Lazio the race for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s seat in the United States Senate.

It came at the very end of his first televised debate with Hillary Clinton the evening of September 13. Lazio manfully strode across the stage to within a few feet of Hillary’s lectern.* He thrust a piece of paper at her and demanded that she sign it. He pointed his finger at her as if he were a prosecutor and she the defendant in the dock.

A fine and well-rehearsed gambit it was: Rick Lazio, his famous grin displaced by a look of fierce accusation, standing there in Hillary’s space, pointing his finger, telling her what to do.

It was the end of the debate so there was no time for moderator Tim Russert to tell the audience that before the program Lazio had joined Hillary in a promise not to resort to any props and not to pull any prop-stunts, like pulling pieces of paper out of his pocket and crossing the stage into Hillary’s space and pointing his finger. And no one had told Russert what to do if one of the debaters violated the agreement because nobody thought Hillary or Lazio would violate it.

If you didn’t catch Lazio’s finger on tv you probably saw it in news reports that night or the next day as an AP photo in the New York Times and many other newspapers and magazines. The image appeared everywhere, and it immediately became iconic. Whenever people talked about that debate they talked about the moment Lazio crossed the stage with the piece of paper and pointed at Hillary.


Particularly women. Women talked about that moment a lot. Women who already favored Hillary talked about it and said, “See!” My daughter Rachel, a Buffalo attorney, was one. She called us immediately after the debate and said, “Did you see what he did? He grins and then he attacks her?” A few days later she sent me an email about it:“I just kept thinking that he was going to get violent or make the situation even more unbearable than it was. It made me really uncomfortable to watch and you could just see the discomfort in her face. It was very intimidating not just for Hillary, but for me as a viewer.”

Going into the debate the two candidates were about even, with enough undecideds in the middle to swing the election either way. Forty-eight hours later Hillary’s positive poll numbers pulled above 50% for the first time. Pollsters credited the swing to previously undecided voters–mostly women.

“No matter how liberated women are,” an English major graduate student at UB said, “they are still women and his treatment of Hillary was just rotten.” She imitated his pointing gesture.  “He came across as a bully, which I think will only serve to alienate him from all undecided voters.”
“When he stepped across the stage and pointed his finger at her,” a cardiac care nurse at Millard Fillmore hospital said, “and Hillary just stood there, keeping her dignity, I wanted to kill him.”

Lazio’s Grin

Image may not be all in politics, but it’s where things start and finish. The image Rick Lazio works so hard to cultivate is the enthusiastic kid who’ll work hard and do anything to please. It’s more in body language than words: head cocked slightly to one side or another, an almost ineradicable boyish grin displaying big white teeth. It’s often referred to as his “puppy look.” You know how puppies are: they’re curious, they’re energetic, and they’ll do anything for you.

There’s a problem with images: if you’re grounded in an image you can be killed by an image, and that is very much a part of Lazio’s surprising slide. When he charged into Hillary Clinton’s space in the September debate waving that piece of paper and pointing his finger he gave undecided women voters an image that would help them make a choice.

You saw the teeth a lot in his third and final debate with Hillary on Friday, October 27. With only a few exceptions, he’d grin, assume a mature expression to attack her, and then he’d grin again. (The master of having the smile and the words say different things was Senator Joe Byden of Delaware. In senate hearings he’d grin, be real tough, then grin again. He abandoned the gratuitous smiles when he had a brief fling at running for president and his handlers told him he was giving such mixed messages potential voters didn’t know what to make of him.)

Lazio didn’t charge into Hillary’s space in the October 27  final debate. He’s got a good staff and they know perfectly well how much the first intrusion had cost him. But he still hadn’t learned to avoid the way bullyish men deal with women:  he kept interrupting her. Almost every time she spoke, he interrupted, sometimes three or four times in the course of one of her statements. When he misrepresented things she said or things she was supposed to have done or not done and she tried to correct him, he just talked more loudly, shouting her down, interrupting her corrections.

Not many people watched that debate, but among those who did, the relentless interruptions had pretty much the same effect as the finger-pointing and invasion of space in the first debate. “He smiles,” the nurse in Millard Fillmore Hospital said to me that night, “but he acts like one more bully.”

Rick, Homer, and the Power of Images

All of which reminds me of an election in the heart of the heart of the country nearly 40 years ago.

It was 1962 in Indiana. Birch Bayh, a Democrat who had never held office higher than the state legislature,  was running against long-term incumbent Senator Homer Capehart. Capehart, a very conservative establishment Republican, was supposed to have won that senatorial election by 5 or 6 percentage points but, after a long night’s ballot counting, it turned out that Bayh had squeaked in by less than 1%.

Who changed their votes? Pollsters found that it was women who had previously said they’d vote Republican. Why did they change? A pair of photographs the day before the election on the front page of the Indianapolis Star, Indiana’s only state-wide newspaper.

I’ve looked for that pair of photos but haven’t been able to find them. That was before everything of any interest to anyone made its way to the web. But I remember them. Bayh was in a supermarket parking lot, white shirt with sleeves rolled up, loosened tie, collar unbuttoned, talking with several women with shopping carts, packages, babies. The photograph of Capehart had been taken in a factory; he wore a dark suit and dark vest over his corpulent frame and he was standing next  to some kind of  machine. 

Post-election researchers reported that many of the women who had changed their vote said Bayh looked so young and interested in what mattered to them while Capehart reminded them of the Big Boss in the Depression and union organizing caricatures.  Some said they had been brought up their whole lives knowing that the fat man wearing a suit and smoking a big cigar was their enemy and always would be.

That Depression era and union organizing image of the evil boss could have been a skinny guy--John D. Rockefeller was skinny and so was Henry Ford–but for a series of 100 cartoons in HARPER’S WEEKLY  Thomas Nast did of New York’s Boss Tweed a century earlier. Tweed is reported to have said, “Let’s stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers write about me–my constituents can’t read–but damn it, they can see pictures.”

I don't think any of these images created anything but, as Tweed correctly opined, they sure help people see what they’re thinking. Thomas Nast’s drawings of Boss Tweed were influential because they gave people a visual handle for what they already knew and felt. Likewise Nick Ut's 1972 Pulitzer Prize photograph of 10-year-old Kim Phuc, running naked down a Vietnam country road just after being burned by American napalm. People would point at that photo and say: “That, that’s what I’m talking about, that’s what I’m feeling, that’s what’s wrong.”

Aggressive Men

And, likewise, finally, Lazio’s finger. Aggressive men point fingers at one another all the time, they move into each other’s space all the time, they assert their power all the time. But up until that moment in the first debate, Rick Lazio hadn’t been playing aggressive man, he’d been playing puppy dog, and everybody likes a puppy dog. When he charged at Hillary and pointed that finger and demanded she sign his piece of paper he became just one more of those bullies so many women (and men) had been pushed around and interrupted by all their lives. He provided an image that Hillary couldn’t, an image powerful enough to combat that relentless and perfected puppy-dog grin, an image that caught the real thing the grin had for so long obscured.

Lazio pointed his finger at Hillary, but the person he gave the finger to was finally himself.


*I know what you’re thinking, so don’t bother writing that letter to the editor. The usual journalistic practice is to seek consistency: if you call one candidate by his or her first name, then you call all by their first names; if you use the title Dr. for one doctor in a group, you doctor every one of them. But a higher journalistic rule is to seek clarity and economy. If I hear “Clinton” or “Rick” I think first of the President and that Puerto Rican singer who has a smile that blows Lazio’s off the screen. If I hear “Hillary” or “Lazio” I think of the two candidates for Pat Moynihan’s job.