Obama at first seemed flummoxed by the interloper. And then, in a rare display of public peeve, she turned stern and combative. Moving away from the lectern and toward the heckler, she threw down a challenge. “One of the things I don’t do well is this,” she said, referring to the disruption. “Do you understand?” She said the protester could “listen to me, or you can take the mike, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”
As comebacks go, it wasn’t one of the classics, such as the surefire response of every nightclub comic to the blowhard in the third row: “I was the same way when I had my first drink, too.”
Then again, the rules of engagement between hecklers and speakers vary by time, place and position. Comedians are expected to whip out a withering retort; almost all have a few anti-heckler lines stored and ready for deployment. Sports fans, too, are entitled to heckle opposing players and to second-guess the refs.
Politicians and public figures, meanwhile, fire back at their own peril.
Confronted by a heckler who urged him to raise taxes on corporations, Mitt Romney replied that they were part of his no-new-taxes pledge during a campaign stop in Iowa in 2011. “Corporations are people, my friend,” he declared, thereby providing a soundbite that reinforced his opponents’ portrayal of him as a friend of the wealthy.
On the other hand, George W. Bush defused an international incident in 2008 when an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at him and shouted, “This is a farewell kiss, you dog.” Bush’s amused response: “All I can report is it is a size 10.”
Unlike first ladies, seasoned politicians have faced hecklers many times and have strategies for dealing with them, says Chris Lehane, a Democratic political consultant. A humorous response is risky, he says, because it can come off as making light of a serious issue (“The middle of a speech is not the time to get in touch with your inner Seinfeld,” he says). Getting angry doesn’t play well, either; it makes a pol seem rattled and thin skinned.
Better, says Lehane, an advisor to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, was Gore’s “standard operating procedure” for dispatching loudmouths.
When interrupted, Gore would stop, listen a moment, and say, “‘the First Amendment’s a great thing, isn’t it? Let’s hear it for the First Amendment!’ The crowd’s roar would drown out the heckler, and then he’d continue: ‘Now, what I’m really here to talk about is [fill in the blank]. People have travelled a long way to hear this. My staff would be glad to have a conversation with you about the issue you’ve raised.’ That was the signal to the staff to hustle the guy out.”