LOS ANGELES — Hillary Clinton denounced Dick Cheney as Darth Vader, but she did not absorb the ultimate lesson of the destructive vice president:
Don't become so paranoid that you let yourself be overwhelmed by a dark vision.
I think Hillary truly believes that she and Bill are the only ones tough enough to get to the White House. Jack Nicholson endorsed her as "the best man for the job," and she told David Letterman that "in my White House, we'll know who wears the pantsuits." But her pitch is the color of pitch: Because she has absorbed all the hate and body blows from nasty Republicans over the years, she is the best person to absorb more hate and body blows from nasty Republicans.
Darkness seeking darkness. It's an exhausting specter, and the reason that Tom Daschle, Ted Kennedy, Claire McCaskill and so many other Democrats are dashing for daylight and trying to break away from the pathological Clinton path.
"I think we should never be derisive about somebody who has the ability to inspire," Sen. McCaskill told David Gregory on MSNBC on Tuesday. "You know, we've had some dark days in this democracy over the last seven years, and today the sun is out. It is shining brightly. I watch these kids, these old and young, these black and white, 20,000 of them, pour into our dome in St. Louis Saturday night, and they feel good about being an American right now. And I think that's something that we have to capture."
Tuesday's voting showed only that the voters, like moviegoers, don't want a pat ending. Hillary and Obama will battle on in chiaroscuro. Her argument to the Democratic base has gone from a subtext of "You owe me," or more precisely, "Bill owes me and you owe him," to a subtext of "Obambi will fold at the first punch from the right."
Hillary's strategist Mark Penn made the argument last week that because the voters have "very limited information" about Obama, the Republican attack machine would tear him down and he would lose the support of independents. Then Penn tried to point the way to negative information on Obama, just to show that Obama wouldn't be able to survive Republicans pointing the way to negative information.
As she talked Sunday to George Stephanopoulos, a former director of the formidable Clinton war room, Hillary's case boiled down to the fact that she can be Trouble, as they say about hard-boiled dames in film noir, when Republicans make trouble.
"I have been through these Republican attacks over and over and over again, and I believe that I've demonstrated that much to the dismay of the Republicans, I not only can survive, but thrive," she said, adding that "frankly, in his prior election in Illinois, Sen. Obama didn't face anyone who ran attack ads against him."
Better the devil you know than the diffident debutante you don't. Better to go with the Clintons, with all their dysfunction and chaos — the same dysfunction and chaos that fueled the Republican hate machine — than to risk the chance that Obama would be mauled like a chew toy in the general election. Better to blow off all the inspiration and the young voters, the independents and the Republicans that Obama is attracting than to take a chance on something as ephemeral as hope. Now that's Cheney-level paranoia.
Bill is propelled by Cheneyesque paranoia, as well. Bill's visceral reaction to Obama — from the "fairy tale" line to the inappropriate Jesse Jackson comparison — is rooted less in his need to see his wife elected than in his need to see Obama lose, so that Bill's legacy is protected. If Obama wins, he'll be seen as the closest thing to JFK since JFK. And JFK is Bill's hero.
Even though Obama stopped smoking when he started running for president, he has lost five pounds racing around the country. Just like Hollywood starlets, he works out religiously and can make a three-course meal out of a Nicorette.
For much of the year, when matched against Hillary in debates, the Illinois senator seemed out of his weight class. Though he has slimmed down, he has moved up to heavyweight. The big question is: Can he go from laconic to iconic to bionic? Will he have the muscle to take on the opposition, from Billary to the Republican hate machine to the terrorists overseas?
"I try to explain to people, I may be skinny but I'm tough," he told a crowd of more than 15,000 in Hartford the other night, with the Kennedys looking on. "I'm from Chicago."
The relentless Hillary has been the reticent Obama's tutor in the Political School for Scandal. He is learning how to take a punch and give one back.
When she presents her mythic narrative, the dragon she has slain is the Republican attack machine. Obama told me he doesn't think about mythic narratives. Nonetheless, if he wants to be president, he'll have to slay the dragon. And his dragon is the Clinton attack machine.
c.2008 New York Times News Service