Sunday, June 8, 2008

Something Happened: A Look Back

I'm going to indulge myself here in an extended exercise in self-reference.

Before I started this blog, I had been writing down my thoughts about the campaign and then sending them around to a few friends. The first of those screeds was something written shortly after Hillary's New Hampshire win. I'm reproducing it below. As you will see, it's pretty long. So read it if you like, or not. The reason I want to post it here is that I think it's important to remember the moment/event that prompted it -- specifically, Hillary's tearing-up the day before the vote. That moment and the win that followed were important, and shouldn't be lost. I also find myself struck by how the primary campaign did, in fact, roll out in the months that followed, vis a vis my speculations back then about how it would do so.

I've got a couple of thoughts at the end, based on this ditty.

* * *
Something Happened

The very idiosyncrasy of the moment made it clear that this was genuine – not exactly (or just) the words she uttered, but the feeling behind those words. Hillary was caught unaware by the most softball and innocent of questions – and precisely because she wasn’t feeling confident at that moment, or confident enough to switch immediately into self-aggrandizement and/or performance mode, she was unable to hide the pain it dredged up.

She was surprised at that moment to find herself visible as an ordinary woman, being asked by another ordinary woman about keeping up appearances, about her hair. She wasn’t expecting the focus to be turned suddenly onto herself, or in that way. Staring at probable defeat – everybody, even her own team, was saying so – and possibly the beginning of the end of her presidential bid, she was struggling to keep it together, to remain upbeat and composed. And that question, quite unintentionally, zeroed in on just that tender spot. It called up, in ways she wasn’t in control of, all the emotional suppression that being a smart woman involves, and that she has been learning to practice her entire life.

It called up her own ambition, and the pain of feeling it about to be dashed – the pain of being rejected very publicly. It called up the pain and public humiliation her husband had inflicted on her – pain she has generally expressed in private with her friends, with women like this one. It called up the rage and feeling of impotence at not being able to hit back at the vicious misogynists who regularly celebrated her every disappointment – and whose gleeful cackling had reached a remarkable crescendo that very day, at the prospect of her impending defeat. That crescendo was echoing from the anchor desk of MSNBC, to the op-ed page (and even the front page) of the NY Times – not to mention the legions of Hillary-haters around the blogosphere, where glee and rage are unconstrained by the decorum of more traditional discourse.

This moment was a Rorschach test. You either got it or you didn’t. Women across New Hampshire got it, and the misogynists – of left or right – didn’t. Even Keith Olbermann didn’t. He could see only ideology, see only power (her supposed place among the powers-that-be), only see someone who doesn’t fit into his narrative and self-image, who isn’t one of The Powerless Whom I Defend. In other words, even whip-smart, quick-as-a-cat and very-left-leaning Keith Olbermann just didn’t see the emotional authenticity of that moment. So he launched into a mini-version of his patented jeremiad – so enjoyable and appropriate when directed at Bush – grounded not just in Hillary Clinton’s inauthenticity, but in her desperation-fueled aggressiveness and lack of common decency. If she’s just going to feel hurt, that’s fine. But how dare she both cry and recite her talking points, both tear up and go on the attack (read: be a woman and seek power)?

Olbermann, Andrea Mitchell – and, of course, Chris Matthews – piled on with glee. The basic storyline was never even questioned, and they all kept congratulating each other on their metaphoric exuberance in repeating it: Hillary’s gonna lose! She’s one of the great losers in history. She’s like the Turks, and Obama’s like Lawrence of Arabia coming at them from across the desert! Loser, loser, loser. Ha ha ha. The reporter covering the Obama campaign for MSNBC described nothing but huge crowds, euphoria and history. Mitchell, supposedly covering the Clinton campaign, was simply and overtly scornful of it – spending her entire “report” talking about how phony and manufactured their events are. All the networks played the clip of Hillary misting up over and over, and NBC in particular congratulated itself that it had played the whole thing, which demonstrated conclusively that her moment of exhaustion and pain was either inauthentic and calculated, or woefully insufficient to trump her inhuman ambition and viciousness, in the estimation of any decent human being.

Except… that’s not how women saw it – most women, women who themselves struggle with the sorry state of human evolution and the misogyny that’s all over the face of this planet. Some women pundits, of course, are infected themselves – think Maureen Dowd, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin. But for most women – and, yes, plenty of men – the obvious was, well, obvious. This was an unscripted, unexpected and even unwelcome rush of real feeling, real hurt, real regret – and it was touching regardless of whether it was intermixed with ambition, steely discipline and an awareness of the presence of the cameras.

So the stage was set as the coverage began that night – set to play out the drama of the humiliation and final collapse of “Billary” or “the Clinton machine.” (How easy it is to cackle when you convince yourself that the victim isn’t a human being but a monstrous fusion, or a cyborg.) On MSNBC, the opening theme music hadn’t even died down before Matthews began his chops-licking – and he was echoed by Olbermann, Mitchell and Cook. To his credit, Joe Scarborough didn’t join in that chorus. And Rachel Maddow covered herself with glory – taking down not her segment’s tag-team talking head Pat Buchanan, but Matthews himself.

The problem, of course, is that the play these folks came into the theater expecting to see wasn’t the one actually put on by the actors who walked onstage – that is, the voters of New Hampshire. The reason the polls got this so wrong – all the polls, even the latest ones, even those taken as recently as the night before election day – is not because polling sucks. Nor is it because people made up their minds at the last minute. If that had been the case, those earlier polls would have indicated a lot more undecideds. And not, pace some claims to the contrary, because of the “Bradley/Wilder Effect” – i.e., people’s unwillingness to admit to a pollster that they’re racist. For one thing, why would that obtain dramatically more in New Hampshire than in Iowa five days earlier? But more generally, Pew’s examination of senate and gubernatorial races from 2006 found no evidence of it. And besides, Obama’s numbers wound up being very much what the polls had predicted.

What happened here wasn’t that people made up their minds in the last 24 hours, it’s that people changed their minds – mostly, switching from Edwards to Clinton. Specifically, women changed their minds. In the moment of seeing the video of Hillary Clinton, they bonded with her. They felt her pain. And this feeling was incubated and strengthened by the piling on. Think John Edwards’s wave-of-the-arm dismissal of her in the Saturday debate as nothing but an emblem of “the status quo.” How painful is that to women? Think Obama’s eyes-lowered, smirky dig later in the debate, “Oh, you’re likeable enough, Hillary.” Think Edwards’s willingness to intone a good, old-fashioned sexist ditty when asked about her emotional moment – pointing out that a commander-in-chief has to be tough.

Put all of that together, and a determination crystallized and grew over the next 24 hours among women in New Hampshire to say, “No mas!” This wasn’t viral, it was common and immediate. One day was too short a timeframe for social network forces to do their work. Rather, this was a broad, spontaneous reaction to a shared experience.

In that moment, Hillary Clinton became a public woman in a way not just unprecedented in her own life, but in American political history.

The bafflement on the part of these impresarios of shadenfreude, as Maddow correctly tagged it, was palpable. The wind was totally knocked out of their sails. Confronted not just with their own pompous, self-important mistakenness, but with their own enthusiastic sexism, they were deer in the headlights.

That isn’t to say their surprise was inappropriate. This wasn’t just a surprising reversal – it was stunning. Politicos were at a loss for comparisons. To get a sense of how enormous this switch was, consider the way things looked on election day to the Obama camp. This from the NY Times on Jan. 9:

On the eve of the New Hampshire primary and throughout Tuesday, strategists for Mr. Obama said they did not sense that voters — particularly women — in New Hampshire were taking a second look at the race. In their strategy room on Tuesday evening, they were thunderstruck.

Their confidence had been mistakenly buoyed by not only the polls, but also the enormous crowds that met Mr. Obama at most stops.

The reversal of all that in one day is non-trivial. It’s profoundly puzzling and troubling to pollsters – troubling because this contest was so consequential. This isn’t some methodological blip in a race for sheriff. It might determine the leadership of the free world. So it must be explained, accounted for.

Vis a vis the polls, let me offer a different explanation. What if this is something like the Bradley/Wilder Effect – only it’s not about race, but gender? What if thousands of women’s hearts were touched at that moment – but they were ashamed to admit it in public, ashamed to admit that something so “trivial” could sway them? What if the very feeling with which Hillary was struggling – the pressure to be tough, hard and man-like, the deep bias against women’s feelings in the public square… call it the burka-fication of public life – what if these tens of thousands of women saw that, shared it – but felt embarrassed about “changing their minds” (how woman-like), about allowing something so serious as a Vote for President to be swayed by a soap-opera, by tears, by feelings? La donna e mobile, eh? Well, we’ll show you mobile, bub. (But we’ll do so in the privacy of the voting booth, where you can’t make fun of us.)

This is a defining moment for Hillary, obviously – but more broadly, for all of us. In many ways it has the whole male-dominated world scratching its head – including that world's snark patrol, as personified by Dowd and her ilk. (It’s a hoot to watch her floundering here, to witness her automaton-like inability to stop spewing impotent bile, even after such behavior has just been called out in public by the women of America.) Frank Rich, another NY Times Hillary-hater, is more moderate in his response – and yet he, too, misses what was so emotionally important here. He attributes her victory to the debate exchange – not even mentioning the far more powerful moment at Monday’s lunch.

But it was clearly Hillary’s moment of emotional visibility – bursting out after all these years of keeping it bottled up – that touched something deep in women, caused them to come out overwhelmingly for her (in contrast to Iowa). This wasn’t just 100,000 people voting. It was 100,000 years of incomplete evolution erupting – in one place, at least, and for one evening.

Beyond this primary and the election in general, I think it was also a major moment in Hillary’s life – and we heard that in the great signature line from her speech: "I listened to you, and in the process I found my voice." Was that line scripted? Of course. Will she continue to live up to the authenticity it promises? Who knows?

What this moment provides is not a punch line but an opportunity. It could open up for her the ability to be less controlled, more spontaneous. She’s just gotten validated for that – big time. She's won permission to be herself – or at least a little more who she really is. And that kind of thing can build. It has not only transformed her electability, it may also have begun a transformation in who she is – and therefore in how she makes decisions once she's president. Whatever game she chooses to play from now on, she’s now holding a couple of different cards.

And make no mistake – this has totally transformed her electability. She has, unintentionally, tapped into a wellspring of longing for hope that is every bit as deep as the spring that Obama has been dowsing. The emotional shoe is now at least partly on the other foot. Before, she was the inauthentic one. Now she’s the one who says what she really thinks and feels – even when it’s awkward, imperfect, maybe not so appropriate (i.e., the move straight into talking-points mode that Olbermann excoriated). In contrast, Obama is the cool, detached, cerebral presence.

Also, whereas she formerly had the problem of how to attack him without seeming to attack the hopes of all oppressed people, now he has to think about how to treat her, how not to crap on the hope she represents. His greatest strength – his universal-recipient quality as a tablua rasa for people’s hopes and fantasies – has been punctured. Perhaps not fatally… but people may now start looking at him in a different context, may want to forge a similar personal bond, may start looking to see if they can find something there like the authenticity, visceral feeling, vulnerability and/or accessible humanness that they’ve seen in Hillary.

There was always the chance that Obama’s very vagueness, his lack of definition, rendered him subject to being blown away by a stiff breeze. Some of us worried that might take the form of a muy macho, “stronger-on-security” Republican opponent in the general election. What we didn’t anticipate was that the breeze would come along with tears in its eyes.

Obama may very well recover – though his campaign’s knee-jerk reaction immediately following, in playing the race card, is not encouraging. That betrays a lack of equilibrium and maturity – which underscores Hillary’s main point about him: that he’s not ready for primetime. However, he may recover and do well in this election, and he may have a distinguished political career. This experience may also cause him to learn and to grow. In any event, he is clearly not some garden-variety sexist. He remains an inspiring, central-casting politician for a new global age. But in this election, no matter what else happens, he no longer has sole ownership of the “hope” franchise.

Beyond the primaries, I think this also changes the calculus of the general election. Counter-intuitively, it strengthens rather than weakens Hillary versus any of the Republicans. Now their nominee, even if it’s McCain, has a new standard of authenticity and emotional connection to match. And woe unto him who tries to engage in even subtle gender-baiting. The women of America are now on patrol.

We’re in uncharted territory here. There has certainly never been a woman in American political history in this situation, and one could argue that you could remove the word “American” from that phrase. By “this situation,” by the way, I don’t mean “about to accede to power.” I mean, rather, a woman with the liberating potential to be herself on a global public stage of this size and impact. She may well choose not to go there, not to dive off that ledge, a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She may pull back. But even if she does, something has happened that can’t unhappen, and it’s going to resonate through this campaign and beyond. I think we may well look back on this moment as an inflection point in more than one historical narrative.

My hope is that Hillary will explore the new possibilities that have opened up for her. I don’t mean exploiting this moment in her campaign – which she will almost certainly do. I’m talking about something more personal. I’m imagining her trying out being less bottled up, letting herself know what it feels like to be seen, trying on the identity of a woman who has – in a very unexpected way – struggled for, and then stumbled into, the freedom to be a real and full human being.

* * *

So, five months later, how does that moment look now?

Did Obama respond well, and grow? On balance, one would have to say no -- or, at least, not yet. I'm not just talking about the shameful tactics his campaign employed, the most egregious of which was the Big Lie about Hillary's RFK remarks. I mean did he, in fact, grow as a candidate, a thinker, a fighter, a leader? Or, rather, did he (a) rely on the very smart tactical work his campaign had begun a year before, leading to the string of 11 victories in February, with particular benefit from the undemocratic caucus states; and then (b) run out the clock? As I've written elsewhere, he has largely faded as a presence. To be sure, there will be a new burst of media hoopla and fawning -- it's their job, after all -- now that he's the presumptive nominee. But it really does not seem to me that he has, in any significant way, become "a better candidate for having had the privilege of competing with her." There are still five months until the general election, and the future, as Pat Brown once cogently remarked, lies ahead.

Did the media -- and especially MSNBC and the New York Times -- learn anything? Did they recover from their deer-in-the-headlights stupor with some self-reflection and increased wisdom? Does that question even require an answer?

Finally, and most importantly, did Hillary walk through this door? Did she explore the new possibilities that The Moment in New Hampshire opened up for her, and for women?

On balance, I'd say yes. She didn't do so in the ways I expected at the time. She didn't stay inside that space of visible tenderness. But through month after grueling month, loss after crushing loss, win after tough win, slur after vicious slur, obituary after obituary... she did, I think, find her voice, and use it to sing a song neither she nor any of us has heard before.


Unknown said...

Astute. That was a turning point for her, and she became an inspiration for us in her refusal to give up. But am I the only one who interpreted her misting up as born of the importance of the race (in addition, of course, to fatigue)? Remember, she was talking about how we mustn't let things go backward; I thought she was thinking about incipient fascism.

Falstaff said...

I think it was a whole bunch of things - and without question, Hillary's lifelong political missions were a big part of it. But I think this moment -- including her own reaction -- came as a surprise to her. And it seems to me that what was surprising wasn't an ideological thought, or an idea of any kind, but something more personal, something that touched on and exposed her as a specific person, with all the messy feelings every human being schleps around. That's what we saw, and that's what we fell in love with.

Claudette said...

First,I'm enjoying your blog very much. Sometimes it's lonely out here where most seem to think the Clintons are monsters to be banished.

Second, I'm wondering what sincere liberals are going to do this November? I didn't have a clear favorite in this primary until it became shamefully obvious that Mr. Obama wasn't too good to stand quietly by and let the MSM do his dirty work. I then became a HRC supporter and don't see how I can vote for Barak Obama in Nov. even though his policies are far better for the US than McCain's would be. I remember the extreme anger I felt toward Nader in 2000 and I don't want to do that to the people of the US this year. But....I don't know how I find it in me to reward this man with a vote.

Your thoughts?

Falstaff said...

I'm exactly where you are, Claudette. This is a real dilemma for us lifelong Dems. Of course, sometimes really good things come out of real dilemmas -- usually, such a conundrum is the only thing that can force real innovation. But maybe that's being too Panglossian...

It's not a very good answer to your question, but for me, I guess I just feel as though we have to wait and see what happens over the next five months. One thing, though: I am not at all inclined to make my decision now. I'm certainly not inclined to jump on board the Obamawagon -- nor to contribute to the DNC (vs. the Congressional and Senatorial Campaign Committees). And if this attitude is widespread, there probably will be some damage to Obama's chances. So be it.

Of course, that could change if he chooses Hillary as his running-mate, and does so reasonably soon -- and if she accepts (accepts because she is just as tough as nails; her concession speech showed just how tough -- she has, once again, walked across the room and brought coffee to someone who wished her dead). If that happens, I expect a lot of us will follow her, with clothespins on.