There's a lot that can and will be jammed into Hillary Rodham Clinton's day of testimony Thursday before the House committee investigating the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
There will, of course, be some details about the tragic deaths and known threats faced by the Americans killed. There will almost certainly be some discussion of what was said before and after the attacks, when and why they were described as random incidents rather than acts of terrorism, and what Clinton believes sparked them. Clinton's now-infamous private e-mail server will also likely get some time.
And that's just what is most likely to be discussed outright.
There will be much left unspoken that hangs in the air, too. This is just one of those moments where the specter of political errors of both substance and style loom large. Very large.
That's why The Fix thought it wise to check in with a pair of communications experts. Consider this guide to evaluating what happens Thursday.
- Ruth Sherman is a political communications consultant and coach and former faculty member at the Yale University Women's Campaign School.
- Gordon Stables is a clinical professor of communication, director of debate and forensics and assistant dean at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He specializes in political communication.
What the experts said
What's at stake — both spoken and otherwise
SHERMAN: Well, first off I would say that this is another opportunity that Hillary Clinton has to show that she can last. It's a sad truth for women — especially older women. But, they tend to be viewed negatively for lots of stupid reasons. So if she can manage to sit there and be conversational and focused without becoming obviously irritated, if she is able to be high energy and ready for anything, it would be to her benefit that will show people that she's got the vitality — and I hate to use that word — to be president.
Clinton has an added burden. She has to help us imagine her in the Oval Office because we haven’t had a woman in the presidency and so, that’s hard for some people to imagine. That’s really something we ask ourselves about all candidates, even subconsciously. It's not right, but that's the way it is.
Second, I think there is an issue of proxemics here — that's an academic term for how we use space. In this situation, there will be a committee seated on an elevated platform looking down on the audience and the person giving testimony. That difference conveys authority. It says to anyone watching: The committee is important and deserving of answers and respect, even if Clinton does not actually respect them. But it can also lend itself to the committee, particularly the men on the committee, looking like bullies.
Finally, I think she needs to come across as someone who feels badly, who thinks that this was a terrible thing that happened. She has to communicate her humanity in this situation and not just be a cold, calculating politician. This is another one of those areas where Clinton has an added burden that may not be fair but can not simply be ignored. Socially, there are, in every space, expectations that women will be nurturing and kind and graceful.
STABLES: This is, like it or not, the next big moment of political theater in the 2016 campaign. It's a significant moment — one that will likely have some substance but still an important transition from the debate for Clinton. Clinton had been in a negative spiral before the debate. The debate reversed that. This hearing could continue that or could mark a turn back toward the campaign in crisis or struggle stories that were out there all summer. So a strong, credible performance really matters here for Clinton.
And really, to be honest, I don't know that there has been another public figure who has spent so much time in the public eye with so much criticism except maybe Nixon. She’s not only been a political figure but a lighting rod. There were Republican mailers sent out 20 years ago to raise money off the threat of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Now that's a real possibility. But this is a hurdle Clinton has to clear.
What Clinton should avoid at all costs
SHERMAN: She cannot appear evasive. That means redirecting, changing the subject — and there can’t bee too much whispering in the ear off mic, because it will all be translated as evasiveness. She should avoid saying things like, 'That’s an interesting point, but here’s what I think is more important.' That’s a technique that a person can use in a situation where they are being asked a question they would rather not answer. We know that it's a technique that can work, in short interviews. It works.
However, over the course of eight or nine hours, Clinton won't be able to avoid many subjects. It's just not possible. If she tries to often over the course of the day, it will be noticed.
So, it goes almost without saying that this is generally not going to be a good place for sarcasm. The only way — and I mean the only way — that she can effectively use sarcasm in this hearing is if the committee somehow obviously goes over the top and they blow it, if there are too many statements or assertions within questions from the committee that can be demonstrated as false, there may be some room there to exhibit some sarcasm, or maybe even exasperation. But that's an extremely difficult decision she will have to make on the spot, a very tough and delicate call.
When she last testified before, I think, a Senate committee, she got exasperated. At one point, "What difference does it make?" came out. [Ed. note: The exact quote is "What difference, at this point, does it make?] I felt right there and then, that’s not the right answer. People died, let’s not forget, so that has to be treated with a good deal of sensitivity.
She also has to be careful not to overstep in the effort to expose the committee as a partisan charade. I would imagine that her surrogates will be out there doing it for her, but I don’t think she should do it at all during the hearing. It would weaken any statements that she makes.
STABLES: This hearing could go for up to eight hours. So, while she's an experienced public speaker and political combatant who is incredibly composed in most settings, I think that that won't be easy to manage in this setting. It is extremely hard for anyone to listen to what may be eight hours of criticism. All day. Over and over. That is very hard.
Plus, there's already the narrative out of the last Benghazi hearing, which is that she lost her cool. So, this time, it's going to be essential that she avoid that. She cannot do that again. That means not shaking her head in disagreement while others are talking, no murmuring, sighing or anything else that might convey frustration or impatience.
For those watching the hearings on TV, there will be a lot of split screens and closeups of Clinton and the different members of the committee. She can't be caught making unusual faces or dismissing anything said.
What Clinton should do
SHERMAN: Interestingly, much like the committee, she has got to convey, constantly and consistently, that she is there to tell the truth, unvarnished. To do that, she cannot, as she often does, look down or look away while talking. Eye contact is a wonderful way to assert yourself in a nonverbal way.
She needs to look and sound like someone who takes this process seriously. She should sit forward, lean into — rather than away from — the questions and those doing the questioning. She should speak in low, direct tones and bring her voice down at the end of phrases.
She also has to be — I mean has to be — ready to answer questions about the e-mail servers, and she won’t have a Sanders and his [debate stage] gift out there to intercede.
It will be particularly important for Clinton to respond without too many delays or silences. Some silence can be good to emphasize a point. But, when she is asked about events or e-mails or information communicated on a specific date, it will be difficult to remember those things immediately. So she will, at points, have to refer to her notes or turn to her staff. When she does that, she needs to be sure to say something along the lines of, 'I want to be sure that I answer accurately, that I give the committee the answer it deserves. So, let me check my notes.'
STABLES: If I were helping her to prepare, I'd spend some time on getting her to recognize her own patterns, the ways that she communicates nonverbally that she is irritated or exhausted or frustrated. For me, I tend to roll my eyes. So that's something I have to try to suppress.
So I think, in this case, I would also want to give her some strategies to allow or appear relaxed or calm. Sometimes that's as simple as a strategy to look in the direction of the committee while answering a question or listening, but actually focusing on a space about five inches above a committee member's head. That way, she can really listen but dedicate time to formulating her answer without appearing evasive or as if she is looking away and disengaged.