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A (Mostly) Graceful Exit

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/clintongoodbye2.jpgSen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) (Barbara Kinney, Flickr)

Exits are hard.

When to leave. How to leave. Should you leave them laughing? Or crying? Or both? Should you be sentimental but dry-eyed? Self-celebrative but self-deprecating? No question, quitting the game is a tough moment, especially when and if it all comes down to the wire, and you are being nudged out not just by reality but also by old, loyal chums. Leave now before more damage is done. Buck up and concede with grace.

Such was the dilemma facing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was finally ready to call it quits. She hit, it is fair to say, a perfect note, part narcissism (who doesn’t leave the stage without a fair dose of that), part magnanimity, especially when it came to Barack Obama.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Let’s be honest. She was at the National Building Museum in Washington on Saturday to service his ego and needs, not her own. Her time was over. All she had to do was pass the baton as best she could. She has not his soaring rhetorical gifts. There has always been something about her that bespeaks the smartest girl in the class, something a little practiced if fluent, a little schooled.

But her exit speech was as graceful as it gets. She did exactly what she had to do: endorse Obama full-tilt and urge her supporters to do the same. The speech was in sharp contrast to her Tuesday night speech after the last primaries, when she couldn’t seem to say anything about the historic nature of the night when the first African-American became a major party’s nominee for the highest office in the land.

Too painful right then to go there. She did the math over, insisting she still had 18 million voters on her side and would release them, presumably, when Obama came up with something to help salve her wounds. By Saturday, the wounds were tucked back under the pantsuit, and the old pro was at the podium one last time.

When she walked off, there was a kind of nationwide exhalation. It had been a long bruising fight. True, there were in that audience, and around the country, many impassioned Hillary supporters — including cadres of irate women who think she was dissed repeatedly by the sexist bully boys of the mainstream media along with the lowlife blogger boys of cyberspace who called her every name in the book.

Let us not forget she was running at a time when the hot Hollywood comedies are sophomoric sex romps like “Knocked Up,” all having at their center a frantic, frat boy x-rated insecurity about the power of women, sexual and otherwise. That old puerile stuff.

It is remarkable, then, that Clinton did so well, even, and especially, with men — hardworking, beer-drinking, blue-collar men. The women supporters were one thing, the men entirely another. There were exciting moments and exciting victories and a candidate as tenacious and gritty, as capable of playing hardball, as the next guy. Hats off to her for that and for the way she finally took her leave.

Here’s the thing: it’s hard, in the aftermath, not to be angry and relieved all at the same time. Angry because you’re a woman and there is no question there was a nasty undertone to a lot of the coverage she received — smirky, dissective and dismissive. It came from women often as much as from men — both Maureen Dowd and Peggy Noonan seeming to polish up special vitriol when it came to Clinton, a seeming lifetime of animus packed into every column about her.

Given the antipathy Clinton engenders — and has for years — it is amazing, really, she had the chutzpah to run at all, the tenacity, the willingness to put herself out there one more time. Some can, and did, write it off as pure ambition. What politician isn’t full of rampant ambition?

But no question, there is also relief that is has come to an end. The Clintons and their marriage and the bargains they make and have made have haunted our consciousness, and certainly the national media coverage, for so long. There is on the stands, even now, a Vanity Fair piece dissecting Bill Clinton’s post-presidential life, rife with innuendoes about his private life and solid reporting about the morally compromised fat cats he hangs out with.

There would have been a lot more of that had Hillary Clinton garnered the nomination, a lot more prying into the former president’s alliances, personal and professional. We live in a media world where private lives are fair game — often, most of the game. You just can’t be sitting on secrets. It makes you tense and armored, which is how Hillary Clinton looked until those much-dissected tears and until, as defeat grew ever-near, she seemed at long last to relax into her warmer self.

It was late. She was overmatched by a natural — a man cool and careful and gifted, a man who has mastered the art of being open and accessible while holding something back. A man both hip and earnest. A man so determinedly gracious in victory that his opponent had no option but to follow his lead, which she did — even though, in the dark of night or those private moments, the loss must sting hard.

She’ll be back, no doubt, after Obama’s campaign finds the right role for her, but it will be in the service of someone else’s need and ego not her own. Her vaunted ambition notwithstanding, she is a team player, Hillary Clinton is. Just ask her husband; just ask the many senators whose respect she has earned. She will do the same for Obama when he calls, hiding her deep, personal disappointment as she rallies those disaffected women and blue-collar men to his side.

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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