DERRY, N.H. — When I walked into the office Monday, people were clustering around a computer to watch what they thought they would never see: Hillary Clinton with the unmistakable look of tears in her eyes.
A woman gazing at the screen was grimacing, saying it was bad. Three guys watched it over and over, drawn to the "humanized" Hillary. One reporter who covers security issues cringed. "We are at war," he said. "Is this how she'll talk to Kim Jong Il?"
Another reporter joked: "That crying really seemed genuine. I'll bet she spent hours thinking about it beforehand." He added dryly: "Crying doesn't usually work in campaigns. Only in relationships."
Bill Clinton was known for biting his lip, but here was Hillary doing the Muskie. Certainly it was impressive that she could choke up and stay on message.
She won her Senate seat after being embarrassed by a man. She pulled out New Hampshire and saved her presidential campaign after being embarrassed by another man. She was seen as so controlling when she ran for the Senate that she had to be seen as losing control, as she did during the Monica scandal, before she seemed soft enough to attract many New York voters.
Getting brushed back by Barack Obama in Iowa, her emotional moment here in a cafe and her chagrin at a debate question suggesting she was not likable served the same purpose, making her more appealing, especially to women, particularly older women.
The Obama campaign calculated that they had the women's vote over the weekend but watched it slip away in the track of her tears.
At the Portsmouth cafe on Monday, talking to a group of mostly women, she blinked back her misty dread of where Obama's "false hopes" will lead us — "I just don't want to see us fall backwards," she said tremulously — in time to smack her rival: "But some of us are right and some of us are wrong. Some of us are ready and some of us are not."
There was a poignancy about the moment, seeing Hillary crack with exhaustion from decades of yearning to be the principal rather than the plus-one. There was a whiff of Nixonian self-pity about her choking up. What was moving her so deeply was her recognition that the country was failing to grasp how much it needs her. In a weirdly narcissistic way, she was crying for us. But it was grimly typical of her that what finally made her break down was the prospect of losing.
The Clintons once more wriggled out of a tight spot at the last minute. Bill churlishly dismissed the Obama phenom as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," but for the last few days, it was Hillary who seemed in danger of being Cinderella. She became emotional because she feared that she had reached her political midnight, when she would suddenly revert to the school girl with geeky glasses and frizzy hair, smart but not the favorite. All those years in the shadow of one Natural, only to face the prospect of being eclipsed by another Natural?
How humiliating to have a moderator of the New Hampshire debate ask her to explain why she was not as popular as the handsome young prince from Chicago. How demeaning to have Obama rather ungraciously chime in: "You're likeable enough." And how exasperating to be pushed into an angry rebuttal when John Edwards played wingman, attacking her on Obama's behalf.
"I actually have emotions," she told CNN's John Roberts on a damage-control tour. "I know that there are some people who doubt that." She went on "Access Hollywood" to talk about, as the show put it, "the double standards that a woman running for president faces." "If you get too emotional, that undercuts you," Hillary said. "A man can cry; we know that. Lots of our leaders have cried. But a woman, it's a different kind of dynamic."
It was a peculiar tactic. Here she was attacking Obama for spreading gauzy emotion by spreading gauzy emotion. When Hillary hecklers yelled "Iron my shirt!" at her in Salem on Monday, it stirred sisterhood.
At Hillary's victory party in Manchester, Carolyn Marwick, 65, said Hillary showed she was human at the cafe. "I think she's really tired. She's been under a lot more scrutiny than the other candidates — how she dresses, how she laughs."
Her son, David, 35, an actor, said he also "got choked up" when he saw Hillary get choked up. He echoed Hillary's talking points on the likeability issue. "It's not 'American Idol.' You have to vote smart."
Olivia Cooper, 41, of Concord said, "When you think you're not going to make it, it's heart-wrenching when you want something so much."
Gloria Steinem wrote in The Times on Tuesday that one of the reasons she is supporting Hillary is that she had "no masculinity to prove." But Hillary did feel she needed to prove her masculinity. That was why she voted to enable W. to invade Iraq without even reading the National Intelligence Estimate and backed the White House's bellicosity on Iran.
Yet, in the end, she had to fend off calamity by playing the female victim, both of Obama and of the press. Hillary has barely talked to the press throughout her race, yet the Clintons this week whined mightily that the press prefers Obama.
Bill Clinton, campaigning in Henniker on Monday, also played the poor-little-woman card in a less-than-flattering way. "I can't make her younger, taller or change her gender," he said. He was so low-energy at events that it sometimes seemed he was distancing himself from her. Now that she is done with New Hampshire, she may distance herself from him, realizing that seeing Bill so often reminds voters that they don't want to go back to that whole megillah again. He was not seen on the screen during her victory speech.
Hillary sounded silly trying to paint Obama as a poetic dreamer and herself as a prodigious doer. "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act," she said. Did any living Democrat ever imagine that any other living Democrat would try to win a presidential primary in New Hampshire by comparing herself to LBJ? (Who was driven out of politics by Gene McCarthy in New Hampshire.)
Her argument against Obama now boils down to an argument against idealism, which is probably the lowest and most unlikely point to which any Clinton could sink. The people from Hope are arguing against hope.
At her victory party, Hillary was like the heroine of a Lifetime movie, a woman in peril who manages to triumph. Saying that her heart was full, she sounded the feminist anthem: "I found my own voice."
c.2008 New York Times News Service