Published in the NY Times, Saturday, January 5, 2008
What Would Hillary Rodahm Do?
What does Hillary Clinton stand for, if not the spirit of We Can Get Through This?
There she was, taking leave of Iowa at a deeply, deeply depressing post-caucus party Thursday night. On stage, her posse was looking determinedly cheerful, like heroic musketeers before the firing squad: the Los Angeles mayor (Latino), the New York lieutenant governor (black), Madeleine Albright (female) and Terry McAuliffe (white-man money), along with two extremely photogenic little girls and a huge mass of union officials.
Hillary, looking remarkably perky, and Bill, looking remarkably pink, turned their game faces to the cameras.
“This is a great night for Democrats,” the front-runner who came in third announced firmly. “Together, we have presented the case for change and have made it absolutely clear that America needs a new beginning.”
Meanwhile, over on the happy side of town, Barack Obama was telling his ecstatic supporters that they would “be able to look back with pride and say this was the moment when it all began.”
The critical “it” is not really about reforming health care or getting out of Iraq or stopping global warming. We all know there’s only the thinnest of lines between Obama and Clinton on these matters — a line that would instantly be obliterated by the mangle that is known as the United States Congress. “It” is about Barack’s promise to sweep away the old, unlovable red-meat politics and create a nonpartisan “coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states.”
Which Hillary, veteran of the right-wing-conspiracy wars, regards as a fairy tale.
If Clinton wants to be Franklin (and Eleanor) Roosevelt in this campaign, and John Edwards is channeling William Jennings Bryan, Obama is, for all his early opposition to Iraq, the most conservative visionary in the group. Big change is hardly ever accomplished without political warfare. When the red and blue states join together and all Americans of good will march hand-in-hand to a mutually agreed upon destiny, the place they’re going to end up would probably look pretty much like now with more health insurance.
It’s a mistake to read too much into the Iowa caucuses, in which public-spirited citizens gather together to produce utterly unreliable messages. (At the one I went to, Obama got 129 of 228 voters while Bill Richardson got 45. That translated into one delegate each.)
In a small state where newcomers on the honor system can register as local voters on the spot, it could be easy to turn a mass of out-of-state college students and volunteers into what looks like an uprising of Iowa Youth. Nevertheless, you can’t ignore the fact that Hillary Clinton is now the candidate of the aging Democratic establishment whose supporters pray for a low turnout on Election Day. That might get her nominated in the long run, but it is not really the kind of image that makes you go whistling into the election booth.
Somewhere, Senator Edward Brooke must be chortling. You will remember that in 1969 Brooke, a moderate Republican, had the bad luck to be commencement speaker at Wellesley College on the day Hillary Rodham made a name for herself as a voice of her generation. She politely gave the first black American to be elected to the Senate since Reconstruction the back of her hand. “For too long our leaders have used politics as the art of the possible,” she said. (“This is bad?” Brooke must have been thinking.)
It was not actually anything in particular that Brooke and his ilk had done that earned Hillary’s lightly disguised contempt. It was just that they were tired and old and always looking for some way to cut a grubby deal instead of setting their sights on the impossible dream. She and her generation, she said, were “searching for a more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living.”
Nearly 40 years later, here she is, forged into an architect of the possible by every conceivable kind of political and personal disaster. Campaigning in New Hampshire, she’s warning voters that the guy who is promising to turn the whole process into something that people could actually feel good about is peddling “false hopes.”
Meanwhile Barack Obama gives his folks the ecstatic experience. “They said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose,” he told them Thursday night, creating a patriotic lump in every throat in the room.
How could you be 21 and not be for Barack Obama?
How could you be 53 and not wonder how this relative stranger will hold up when the disasters arrive, when things get truly nasty and the crowd starts seeing him as mortal?
But if she were around right now, Hillary Rodham the commencement speaker would probably be an Obama girl.
[Wellesley College has Hillary Rodham's 1969 Commencement Address archived online here.]
Online story here. Archived here.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.