Hillary Clinton Holds Back
Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 12:48 pm
This night was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s. Eyes welled up as she appeared, luminous, still so strangely lit up with loss. There in the stands, gazing at her with adoration, was her husband — her complex, clearly emotional and, we are assured, still angry, ex-president of a husband — mouthing “I love you, I love you,” as she spoke. Their long, marital dance is just an inextricable part of our national political drama, as it was again this night, with those strange, mumbled endearments.
It looked as if she was giving it her all. It sounded like it, too. There was emotion, eloquence, even humor, an impassioned plea for all the assembled Democrats — and the millions of others out there listening — to get on board, to support the party’s presumed nominee, Sen. Barack Obama. It was even lovely sometimes, artful, way above the unusually banal language most of her cohorts and colleagues have been using these past talky hours. All right, we can exempt Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Michelle Obama from this criticism. (More about both in a minute.)
Clinton’s task was obvious. To heal the party, bring to the fold her die-hard supporters, nearly a half of whom, according to today’s Wall Street Journal, say they still cannot see their way to supporting Obama and, 20 percent say they might stray McCain’s way.
Say it ain’t so, Clinton said directly to them. You must get on board. Were you in it for me or for the country? Be your better selves and support our party’s candidate, even all you disappointed women out there. My mother was born before women had the right to vote, she said. Now my daughter can cast a vote for her mother for president.
It was goose-bump time for many women — certainly women of her warrior generation who feel as if the torch has been passed right over their heads.
No question, it was a good speech, noble. Clinton was tucking her wounds away for the good of party and country. The ultimate team-player who didn’t want to be blamed for harming that party, the ultimate fighter who didn’t want to dampen her own viability should Obama fail this time. There she would be, ready to take to the battlefield again.
You can feel that, even as watching her, there is a sense that perhaps her true fate lies elsewhere, in the long, honorable road of Teddy Kennedy. He was a man who had to run for the presidency — by the dictates of family and fate — and, once rebuffed, settled into a long, serious career in the Senate, becoming the most revered of men and agile of legislators. It’s not the torch she wanted or is able to settle for right now. Perhaps later.
What’s clear is that there is still a bruised and restless positioning going on with her, as was evident in that speech. (For Kennedy, his 1980 run signaled a hard and irrefutable end of his presidential quest; too much stuff had come up.) Yes, she endorsed Obama—mentioning him at least a dozen times. But what she endorsed was the candidate — not the man. He had no flesh on him. He was the Democratic candidate, and that was enough for her.
There was no talk of Obama’s passions, his career, their shared goals and ideals. Of course, she reaffirmed the big “D” democratic values. We’re for the forgotten, the working class not the upper class. We’re for energy independence and a restitution of the respect America used to garner around the world, so squandered in the last eight years. We’re for health care and hope and change. That’s why I ran, she said—underscore “I.” She never said that’s why Barack Obama is running. It was a passionate but strangely impersonal—almost totally impersonal —endorsement.
In fairness, to Clinton, Michelle Obama didn’t offer a completely fulsome portrait of her husband either. She wasn’t able to put flesh on the political leader her husband has been and can be. He was a community organizer. OK—what did he get done, believe in? As a state senator? As a senator? He’s a good man, she says, a man who, with tenderness and caution, drove her and their newborn daughter home from the hospital, awed by the new paternal responsibility.
That was her task, granted, to humanize their family, make them seem like every other family out there. We are awfully touchy-feely now in our conventions, in our country. But there is still a strange absence in that hall in Denver.
In fairness, too, it isn’t Clinton’s job to fill that absence. She went as far as she could. That’s what it felt like. There was just something held back, something about Barack Obama she could not certify, could not delineate—could not or would not.
Yes, he’s no McCain, no George Bush. But she didn’t try to help define who he is, didn’t exactly speak to her working-class supporters and allay their fears about Obama, didn’t say to them — he is your man, he will look after you. I know him; I’ve been with him. He is a good man, a man of judgment and compassion.
She didn’t say any of that. She threaded a rhetorical needle Tuesday night.
There was much to admire, to resonate to in her speech. But, whether consciously or unconsciously, from will or wounds, there was still something missing: Obama himself.
Anne Taylor Fleming is a novelist, commentator and essayist for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” She is the author of a memoir, “Motherhood Deferred: A Woman’s Journey.”
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