WASHINGTON — Russell Berman, a young reporter for The New York Sun, trailed Bill Clinton around Maryland all day Sunday. The former president was on his best behavior, irritating the smattering of press.
After Bill's last speech at Leisure World retirement community in Silver Spring, Berman interviewed two women in the audience.
Elaine Sirkis, 77, an Obama supporter, confided that she just isn't sure she's ready for a woman president. Betty Conway, 83, a Hillary supporter, confided that she just isn't sure she's ready for a black president.
As Conway walked away, Sirkis smiled sheepishly. "I'm sorry," she told Berman sweetly about her friend. "She's a bigot."
We're not just in the most vertiginous election of our lives. We're in another national seminar on gender and race that is teaching us about who we are as we figure out what we want America to be.
It's not yet clear which prejudice will infect the presidential contest more — misogyny or racism.
Many women I talk to, even those who aren't particularly fond of Hillary, feel empathy for her, knowing that any woman in a world dominated by men has to walk a tightrope between femininity and masculinity, strength and vulnerability.
They see double standards they hate — when male reporters described Hillary's laugh as "a cackle" or her voice as "grating," when Rush Limbaugh goes off on her wrinkles or when male pundits seem gleeful to write her political obituary. Several women I know, who argue with their husbands about Hillary, refer with a shudder to the "Kill the Witch" syndrome.
In a webcast, prestidigitator Penn Jillette talks about a joke he has begun telling in his show. He thinks the thunderous reaction it gets from audiences shows that Hillary no longer has a shot.
The joke goes: "Obama is just creaming Hillary. You know, all these primaries, you know. And Hillary says it's not fair, because they're being held in February, and February is Black History Month. And unfortunately for Hillary, there's no White Bitch Month."
Of course, jokes like that — even Jillette admits it's offensive — are exactly what may give Hillary a shot. When the usually invulnerable Hillary seems vulnerable, many women, even ones who don't want her to win, cringe at the idea of seeing her publicly humiliated — again.
And since women — and some men — tend to be more protective when she is down, it is impossible to rule out a rally, especially if voters start to see Obama, after his eight-contest rout, as that maddening archetypal figure: the glib golden boy who slides through on charm and a smile.
Those close to Hillary say she's feeling blue. It's an unbearable twist of fate to spend all those years in the shadow of one Secretariat, only to have another gallop past while you're plodding toward the finish line.
I know that the attacks against powerful women can be harsh and personal and unfair, enough to make anyone cry.
But Hillary is not the best test case for women. We'll never know how much of the backlash is because she's a woman or because she's this woman or because of the ick factor of returning to the old Clinton dysfunction.
While Obama aims to transcend race, Hillary often aims to use gender to her advantage, or to excuse mistakes. In 1994, after her intransigence and secrecy-doomed health care plan, she told The Wall Street Journal that she was "a gender Rorschach test."
"If somebody has a female boss for the first time, and they've never experienced that," she said, "well, maybe they can't take out their hostility against her so they turn it on me."
As a possible first Madame President, Hillary is a flawed science experiment because you can't take Bill out of the equation. Her story is wrapped up in her marriage, and her marriage is wrapped up in a series of unappetizing compromises, arrangements and dependencies.
Instead of carving out a separate identity for herself, she has become more entwined with Bill. She is running bolstered by his record and his muscle. She touts her experience as first lady, even though her judgment during those years on issue after issue was poor. She says she's learned from her mistakes, but that's not a compelling pitch.
As a senator, she was not a leading voice on important issues, and her Iraq vote was about her political viability.
She told New York magazine's John Heilemann that before Iowa taught her that she had to show her soft side, "I really believed I had to prove in this race from the very beginning that a woman could be president and a woman could be commander in chief. I thought that was my primary mission."
If Hillary fails, it will be her failure, not ours.
c.2008 New York Times News Service