Hillary Clinton fired her chief speechwriter Don Rickles today, in an effort to blunt criticism over what is being perceived as her campaign’s harsh rhetoric directed at rival Sen. Barack Obama.
Rickles, 81, long ago secured his place as Hollywood royalty. He was a comic and acted in movies for decades, becoming a confidant of Frank Sinatra.
Then last year he decided to try his hand at political speechwriting and messaging. He joined the Clinton campaign, developing the “Dennis Kucinich looks like his face got stuck in an electric shoe polisher” talking point, which won Rickles the respect of Clinton insiders.
Other speeches by Rickles, including “Joe Biden says no war for oil, but he would nuke the country that tried to raise the price of Rogaine,” and “what’s with Biden’s hair? Hey Joe, the car wash called, they want their chamois back,” helped Clinton to a commanding lead in the polls prior to the Iowa caucuses.
However, Obama’s surprising success in the primaries, combined with Clinton’s inability to build momentum, put pressure on Rickles to devise more aggressive language, according to persons close to the Clinton campaign. Rickles responded with more hard-hitting issue messages, and Clinton read them.
Rickles wrote speeches that hit John Edwards over his position on employment (“John Edwards is too pretty to be president”) and Bill Richardson’s record as a governor, congressman, diplomat and Energy secretary (“why can’t Bill Richardson hold down a job?”).
Then on Monday remarks written by Rickles raised another storm, when Clinton advisor James Carville used them during a TV interview.
Commenting on Gov. Richardson’s endorsement of Obama, Carville told CNN, “Don’t get me started on that hockey puck. Don’t ever get between Bill Richardson and the Taco Bell express line.”
Richardson declined to respond other than to say he didn’t want to get down in the gutter with Carville and Rickles. But a number of Democratic officials and commentators said Rickles had gone too far, and called upon Clinton to denounce him.
This morning Clinton told reporters she is replacing Rickles, but refused to denounce him.
“Rickles’ comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity,” said Clinton. But, she said, “it would be wrong to condemn a man who has devoted his life to bringing joy to millions, because of a few words.”
“There will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. To them I say: I’m sorry,” said Clinton. “If that’s how they feel.”
Asked if that was not much of an apology, she thought a moment before replying, “I apologize. If they misunderstood.”
For his part, Rickles professes bewilderment at the controversy. “I kid Bill Richardson,” said showbiz’s ‘Mr. Warmth.’
“I kid because I love.”