Rude Health

Is Hillary Clinton’s Cough the New Benghazi?

Right-wing media, led by Donald Trump, are obsessed with questioning Hillary Clinton’s physical fitness to govern—beginning with her dry cough.

Rick Wilking/Reuters

If all else fails, the people dreading a Hillary Clinton presidency can comfort themselves with her coughing fits.

The presumptive Democratic nominee’s occasional coughing on the stump—a staple of this year’s campaign reports in various right-leaning media outlets—has been a conservative meme for nearly a decade.

There’s even an anti-Clinton Twitter feed, @hillarycoughing, that has been active since February chronicling the frontrunner’s supposed respiratory tic.

Her 70-year-old Republican rival, Donald Trump, trailing consistently in the latest polls, sometimes refers to the 68-year-old Clinton’s alleged lack of “strength and stamina”—apparently, the cough is evidence of same—and fired Trump campaign manager-turned-CNN political analyst Corey Lewandowski has used Clinton’s coughing bouts to question her health.

“My own feeling is you have a 68-year-old woman running for president who has intense coughing fits in public, and I think the question is, ‘What’s that about?’” said Tucker Carlson, editor of the conservative Daily Caller, which has highlighted the former secretary of state’s cough. “I’m not a physician. I couldn’t hazard a guess. But as of this morning, she’s likely to win. So I’d love to know. It’s a legitimate question.”

Carlson, a cohost of Fox News’s weekend Fox & Friends, told The Daily Beast: “Having covered presidential campaigns for 25 years, I’ve never seen anybody cough that much. It doesn’t mean it’s a problem, but it raises obvious questions for a person who is likely to be the next president of the United States…In the 19th century, it was a sign of consumption…She coughs like a romantic poet.”

The fanatical coughing coverage began as early as May 20, 2007, when the Drudge Report posted the headline, HILLARY COUGHING, WHEEZING AT COMMENCEMENT,” about her speech to graduates of New Orleans’ historically black Dillard University when the former first lady was a New York senator launching her first presidential campaign. It has continued through this past Monday, when Drudge posted the headline “HILLARY COUGHING FIT RETURNS!” to characterize a video clip featuring the candidate emitting four dry little coughs during the raucous Cincinnati rally at which she appeared with Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

In a story about the conservatives’ coughing fixation this past April, The Washington Post noted that Matt Drudge, the agenda-setting web site’s namesake, was happy to minimize Clinton’s commencement cough nine years ago, reasoning that “the campaign trail is long and tough.” He exhorted the candidate on his radio show: “Hillary, dear, take care of yourself. We need you…Take a few days off, what’s this frenetic pace?” He added: “She was professional. She kept going. She finished the speech.” (Drudge didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.)

However, from 2007 till now, and especially this year, the Drudge Report has posted 20-odd cough links to various news and opinion outlets, treating the cough as a serious problem—many on the right side of the ideological divide such as The Weekly Standard, Breitbart News, The Washington Free Beacon and Heat Street, among others, although the nominally liberally Salon has also trafficked in coughing coverage.

“There’s just this leftover sense that Hillary is old and frail and can be mocked for that, and it’s accentuated because they [the conservative media] know that this pisses off liberals,” said The Washington Post’s David Weigel, who has made a point of monitoring the coughing coverage phenomenon. “It’s a desire to portray her as lame and feeble…Some of this is like an appendix, a vestigial thing going back to when the Republicans were supposed to have a great young bench and smart Republicans were assuming that Marco Rubio would win.”

Indeed, the ageist derision might have made more sense during the early months of last year, when the then-44-year-old Florida senator, instead of a septuagenarian reality show billionaire, was a promising presidential prospect, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, himself no spring chicken, quipped to a conclave of conservatives: “Don’t tell me that Democrats are the party of the future when their presidential ticket for 2016 is shaping up to look like a rerun of the ‘Golden Girls.’ ”

Matthew Continetti, editor of The Washington Free Beacon, said his own outlet’s coverage of the coughing Clinton “is just a recurring joke. We’ve made light of Hillary’s age for years.”

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For instance, two years ago, when People magazine published a cropped cover photo of Clinton leaning on a patio chair in her Chappaqua, N.Y., backyard, and the Drudge Report asked, “IS CLINTON HOLDING A WALKER?”, the Free Beacon turned the supposed mystery into a running gag.

“We did items about how Hillary’s always having to steady herself with the chair, and asking if she could walk under her own power,” Continetti said. “It was just a joke, and it annoyed her people, or at least it annoyed people we enjoy annoying.”

But Weigel, who said he admires much of the Free Beacon’s writing and noted that the outlet is hardly in Trump’s pocket, argued: “This is exactly the sort of personality trolling that Trump does all the time and which does quite well for him…They [the Free Beacon] don’t seem to be aware of giving into the abyss with this stuff. And the abyss is staring back at them.”