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Life as a Campaign

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

She can’t seem to stop.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is still making the grueling campaign rounds in hopes of what? Some miracle, some last-ditch suicidal revelation or gaffe from the other side? Is she, in fact, even thinking anymore? Or is she just going on trussed-up rote—hair coiffed, colorful jackets and smile in place—the daily ritual of running so deep in now it has become addictive, impossible to stop.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Of course this is what the Clintons do—both of them. They run for public office. They lose and win and run again. They push and charm with a dual sense of commitment and entitlement that is awe-inspiring. She was radiant in her West Virginia victory speech on Tuesday, as she has been these past few weeks, making her last-ditch case at various diners and day-care centers. She seems to be almost singing, under her breath, a verse of “This Nearly Was Mine”—the show-stopping second act song from “South Pacific,” currently in a stunning revival at Lincoln Center in New York.

See: sentiment’s fine. Corny is fine. This nearly was mine. Should have been, could have been. Could still be. Her chorus, her familial claque, Bill and Chelsea, are everywhere, too. Clearly the family that campaigns together stays together.

That’s the thing: what now? Clearly this campaign has been a bonding time for the Clintons. For years, the couple seemed almost to be living apart—she doing her Senate thing; he moving around the world doing good works and burnishing his post-presidential legacy. But former President Bill Clinton has clearly been on board for his wife’s run. He has been her most avid champion—if sometimes a bit intemperate, even angry, in making the case. He wants this for Hillary, no doubt about it. He has been everywhere, in hamlets and towns, exhorting what is sometimes just a small crowd to support his wife. It’s as if they were back in the beginning somehow, running hard in the rural byways and small towns of Arkansas, as if he—and she—had not already occupied the White House, together, for eight years. This nearly was hers.

Clintons-300x200.jpg
Clintons-300x200.jpg

A smart woman friend of mine said of Hillary Clinton that she has been badly served by the men around her in this campaign. She was referring to Mark Penn and the other guys at the top of her organization— these guys missed the national zeitgeist change early enough, the Obama threat and the need to shake down every vote, prevail at every caucus, no matter how small. But she also meant Bill, making the case of his wife with such fervency he has turned off some voters—not to mention many pundits.

But the truth is without him, who knows? Hillary Clinton is a creature of this marriage to her bones. She was — and is — a strong-minded, gifted woman who would no doubt have found a way to have a meaningful life. But with her marriage to Bill Clinton, she moved into a different realm — as did he. They became more together than either of them might have been apart—and they both knew that right from the get-go.

I knew them then. I saw them as they embarked on their marriage and their journey to the top. They needed each other; they wanted each other. They wanted the pair they became. If she was, ultimately, the forgiving mother figure to his Peck’s bad boy, he was also the champion of her gifts, giving her a platform on which to hone and display them. It is an astonishing story—what they have achieved, what the marriage has survived.

It is way too simple to describe it as an arrangement, simple and simple-minded. Every long marriage has secret places, wounds, things forgiven — little things, big things. The Clintons have just lived a lot of theirs in public. Even so, we don’t know really know what goes on between them. Not really; not any of us.

Soon, it seems inevitable, they will leave the main stage—providing Hillary Clinton does not get the vice presidential nod from Sen. Barack Obama, which is something people are certainly talking about now. And if Obama, now the likely Democratic nominee, doesn’t prevail against Sen. John McCain, one can also imagine Hillary Clinton gearing up for the next time around. But current odds are that we will have a momentary Clinton respite —and that will be restful.

Chelsea.jpg
Chelsea.jpg

They are old-school—too messy, too hot for the new, cooler, post-modern world, Obama’s world. Even McCain, with his quiet voice if sometimes raspy temperament, seems cool by comparison to the Clintons right now. They are sixtysomething — hard to imagine because, like so many of our baby boom generation, they have seemed preternaturally energetic and driven.

No question, it will be restful, too, not to have that endless internecine generational warfare played out over and over: the liberal, dope-smoking, anti-war 60’s kids vs. the Bible-clutching, Clinton-hating reactionaries; all that talk about values and abortion and prayers in the schools. Funnily enough, the Clintons have always been kind of square in a way. They seem to have long prided themselves on being pragmatic and centrist, eyes always on the prize, hardly the hard-core caricatured liberals the right would have them. She is clearly running, as her husband did, from the center—the big lesson he taught the Democrats back when.

So we stick with her one last round, watching her barrel ahead, a hard glint of hope and determination in her eyes. It is sometimes like watching a first-rate athlete trying to play hard-ball against a deft opponent with a more graceful swing, a lighter touch.

Some are grumpy about her endurance, seeing her as a spoiler for her party. But others are inclined to let her have this non-victory lap, let her suit up one more time and make the rounds singing that plaintive refrain: “This nearly was mine.”

It will be over soon enough. You can sense a bit of nostalgia already for the end of the spectator sport known as Clinton-watching. There has been nothing like it, like them. Not even close.

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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