Today, it is front-page news in the New York Times. This just in: Hillary Clinton is a human being! The horror! After months of bashing Hillary for being a cold, calculating, machine, we now get the pile-on for her show of emotion under extreme stress. This is not the way I want to see the first female front-runner for President go down.
Let's call the focus on Hillary's brief teary-eyed moment what it is: pure sexism. If it's national news when her voice cracks for a moment and her eyes well up, but no tears roll, it is only because reporters have been waiting for her to act like a girl. Mitt Romney, you may recall, looked nearly hysterical in his speech in Iowa after the drubbing he took from Huckabee. He got all emotional about the campaign and switched between giggles and near-tears several times. Fox didn't play that clip over and over and ask whether Romney was too weak to be commander-in-chief. (In fact, Fox played a boring clip of Romney opposing "amnesty" for illegal immigrants and claimed he hit a "home run" in the debate that was almost universally viewed elsewhere as a disaster for him. That's "fair and balanced" for you.)
There's no question that Hillary Clinton is, as John Edwards cleverly put it in the New Hampshire debate, the candidate of the "status quo" among Democrats. Her fundraising, her ties to business, her hawkishness, her advisers from the first two Clinton Administrations are hardly harbingers of a progressive revival.
And the enthusiasm Barack Obama has tapped--particularly among young voters--is infectious. But on policy matters and fundraising, Barack and Hillary are actually not that far apart. The race comes down to style and personality. A rather unpleasant current runs through the contest: girls-versus-boys. You don't have to be a Hillary supporter to feel it.
So while the Obama phenomenon is exciting for what it means about bringing young voters and African-Americans to the polls--something progressives have hoped to see from Democrats for a long, long time--watch out for the cheap-shot version of Hillary's demise.
All of the candidates are looking weary. And no wonder. In the first few minutes of the New Hampshire debates, the strain was showing on all the Democrats' slack, frowning, sleep-deprived faces. Now, more than ever, with the condensed primary season, they are pressed to super-human feats of nonstop campaigning. John Edwards campaigned for thirty-six hours straight up until the Iowa caucuses. Events at 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning are followed by midnight appearances on Larry King, followed by breakfast at crazy hours in small-town cafes. The whole thing takes on the appearance of one of those leering reality shows about a group of people living under unbearable conditions. Running for President is now an extreme sport, with all the cattiness of American Idol thrown in. You would be on the verge of tears, too, if you were going through all that and it looked like you were about to lose.
The writing is on the wall for Hillary. Obama is running a better campaign. By going negative, by using the phrase "false hopes," Hillary set herself up for blistering attacks. Obama's eloquent speech in New Hampshire invoking Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" and condemning Clinton's "false hopes" comment resonated.
But here, again, was a phony slam on Hillary. On his blog Politico.com, Ben Smith accused Hillary of deriding Dr. King, and comparing herself to Lyndon Johnson, who, Smith said she implied, was the real force behind civil rights legislation. The blog got quite a bit of attention. A string of comments expressed outrage over Hillary's dis of Dr. King. One post suggested that she was using "dirty tricks" (although she herself seems to be the main casualty here). Another poster said it was almost as if she were trying to lose. Black voters in South Carolina would never stand for it.
I watched the Fox interview in question--with Major Garrett, the same reporter who captured the now-famous teary moment. Actually, Hillary does a good job of addressing the question about her teariness and goes on to discuss Obama's MLK speech at length. The point she makes about Lyndon Johnson is not that he is uniquely responsible for civil rights, but that he was a master politician who got things done. It goes to her argument that she, while not an inspiring figure like MLK (or, one supposes, Obama) knows how to "work hard" and achieve real results--that's the job of a President. Fair enough. Besides the bully pulpit, a President must know how to use the levers of power to get legislation passed. It would be nice to think Clinton could achieve sweeping, civil-rights-movement-scale reform in government. But not even Obama is promising that. Both Clinton and Obama eschew a single-payer health care system, for example. Both are talking about incremental change. Obama, like Clinton's husband, just says it better, in a way that appeals to our more hopeful, idealistic feelings.
That might be reason enough to vote for him. But beware the misogynist subtext of the stories of Hillary Clinton's demise.