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What’s Wrong With Perseverance?

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/clintonnice2-barbara-kinney.jpgSen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) (Barbara Kinney, Flickr.com)

We like always to think of it as a virtue, the head-down, tortoise-beats-the-hare tenaciousness that exemplifies the admirable victors, the artists, the lovers, and — yes — the powerful, who persist in their goals long after the fleet and fleeting have taken their seats. Which, of course, brings us to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Nobody in recent memory, certainly no woman, has pushed and fought and hung as tough as our would-be first woman president.

More to the point, she has ignored and continues to ignore calls for her to step aside, despite the formidable math that stands in her way. She is clearly not afflicted with the traditional female need to make nice. Not by a long shot.

She has been excoriated in print and on the Internet for taking the low road, been analyzed ad nauseam by the TV punditry, been abandoned by former Clinton allies. Yet, on she goes, strangely, even fiercely, alluring in her persistence.

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

Am I crazy, or does she actually look better, glowier, more vital than she did months past when the nomination seemed to be hers for the taking? She is a radiant warrior — or warrioress, if you will — bringing to bear on her White House hunt the same grit and tenacity she has so clearly brought to her marriage. Back when many people, a lot of them women, urged her to abandon her serial philanderer, she brushed off their injunctions with head held high. In fairness, a lot of women seem to exemplify tenaciousness in love, trying to hold marriages and families together despite a straying mate. The domestic sphere is our orbit to manifest persistence.

But seldom do we see a woman show such ferocity in the service of her own blazing, trail-blazing ambition. Seldom have we seen a woman subtly, or not-so, go for the masculine jugular as this one has — slashing at her male opponent with a kind of baiting, patronizing, survivalist’s glee. You want to go a few more rounds? Great. I’m in. This is just getting fun. She seems more and more lit up, he more and more defeated, defensive, even though, technically, he is still in the winner’s column.

It’s quite a spectacle. One that leaves many of us with two minds. Yes, great — if you are in the battle, full steam ahead. Don’t pull your punches, don’t curtsy and leave the stage. Don’t whine or cry, a la Pat Shroeder back when.

To the young women around me, I say, watch her. You may have problems with her; you may think this is ultimately disturbing stuff, but there is something instructive — even quite moving — in her example. If you’re going to play with the big boys, at some point, this is what it might look like.

But there is the flip-side. Clinton is flirting with seriously weakening the presumptive nominee — he does have more popular votes and more delegates. In her zeal to win, she is showing a dangerous willingness to take down her party, a willingness to ding and demean Barack Obama as an untested lightweight unwilling to go for her jugular in turn.

You get the feeling from Clinton that this is her perversely finest hour. A time when every slight, from kindergarten on, is being brought to bear in her obdurate willingness to stay the course — suggesting now that the Florida and Michigan votes should count after the party flat out said they wouldn’t, and after Obama wasn’t even on the ballot in Michigan. Rules be damned — right?

But underneath it all is her dangerous willingness to let race finally finally infect the consciousness of this country. The votes, certainly in the industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, are showing a real racial divide. In the latter state, Clinton got 63 percent of the white vote — inflaming the resentments of the hard-core industrial workers in those states to get it — while Obama got 90 percent of the black vote. And 18 percent of Democratic voters said race mattered to them.

To the young women around me, I say, watch her…But there is a flip side…

OK. The jig is up. We are face to face with our ourselves. Clinton has lasted long enough, and fought hard enough, for the race issue finally to be at the forefront, to grab the post-mortem headline in The New York Times.

Bill Clinton tried to do this in South Carolina — put race squarely on the table — and it backfired. The Clinton campaign, abetted by the prowling media hordes, tried to put it on the table again with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. story, only to have Obama try eloquently to take it off — and seem to succeed in fair measure with his elegant speech.

But now it’s back, really back. No thanks to Obama’s so-called pal, Wright, himself. He told PBS’ Bill Moyers that Obama was, after all, a politician — and they had to say what they had to say. Sounds like wounded ego. Whatever, he didn’t help.

The longer we go, the longer she hangs in, the more Hillary Clinton has been able to make the country wonder if, indeed, it is ready to elect a black president.

We hoped we were past that. We talked of Obama as the post-racial candidate. In their retro-shrewdness, the Clintons have called our bluff. They’ve taken us down the old, low road. She has done this at least in part by her obdurate willingness to keep on keeping on.

Obviously race would have come up in the general election in some form — overtly, covertly, every which way. But it is front and center now: questions of Obama’s electability and, under that or on top of it, his skin color. Even those who might applaud Clinton’s tenacity and still be ardent supporters of her candidacy cannot help but feel some sickness and even some shame over the reckoning her ferocious persevering campaigning has helped bring about.

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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