Democrats getting jittery about the alienating effects of the endless soap opera they call their campaign should buck up. These "hand-wringers," as the Hillary strategist Harold Ickes calls them, are not seeing the larger picture.
Hillary is cruelly misunderstood, and she deserves more credit for her benevolence. Not only does she have a lot in common with Rocky, as she said on Tuesday in Philadelphia. She has a lot in common with another famous cultural character — the Marschallin in Strauss' comic opera "Der Rosenkavalier."
The Marschallin is a princess married to a Viennese field marshal who has a liaison dangereuse with a younger man, Count Octavian. Though she's worried about her fleeting youth and the fickleness of men, she instructs the young man on the ways of love and then gracefully sets him free, allowing him to find happiness with young Sophie as a soaring waltz plays.
Whether or not she wins, Hillary has already given noble service as a sophisticated political tutor for Obama, providing her younger colleague with much-needed seasoning. Who else was going to toughen him up? Howard Dean? John Edwards? Dennis Kucinich?
Obama had not been hit hard until this campaign; he sailed through his Senate race. Without Hillary, he never would have learned to be a good debater. He never would have understood how to robustly answer distorted and personal attacks. He never would have been warned about how harmful an unplugged spouse can be. He never would have realized how a luminous speech can be effective damage control.
When pressed about whether he's ready for Swift-boating, Obama has seemed a bit cavalier. But the Hillary camp will garrote him with his mistakes until he fully appreciates what garroting feels like. Ickes told a Web site on Tuesday that he has been pursuing superdelegates by pressing the Rev. Wright issue.
Besides coaching Obama, Hillary is also shielding him. If she had not fibbed about the Tuzla airport landing, and then fibbed to get out of a fib, the press would have stayed focused on Wright. She has been an invaluable lightning rod.
Hillary has clearly raised Obama's consciousness about the importance of courting the ladies. Touring a manufacturing plant in Allentown, Pa., on Tuesday, he was flirtatious, winking and grinning at the women working there, calling one "Sweetie," telling another she was "beautiful," and imitating his daughters' dance moves by twirling around.
Later, at a Scranton town hall, he went up to Denise Mercuri, a pharmacist from Dunmore wearing a Hillary button. "What do I need to do? Do you want me on my knees?" he charmed, before promising: "I'll give you a kiss."
Obama has been less adept at absorbing the lesson of Hillary's metamorphosis from entitled queen of the party to scrappy blue-collar mama. His strenuous and inadvertently hilarious efforts to woo working-class folk in Pennsylvania have only made him seem more effete. Keeping his tie firmly in place, he genteelly sipped his pint of Yuengling beer at Sharky's sports cafe in Latrobe and bowled badly in Altoona. Challenging Obama to a bowl-off, Hillary kindly offered to "spot him two frames."
At the Wilbur chocolate shop in Lititz on Monday, he spent most of his time skittering away from chocolate goodies, as though he were a starlet obsessing on a svelte waistline.
"Oh, now," the woman managing the shop told him with a frown, "you don't worry about calories in a chocolate factory."
The New York Times' Michael Powell reports that, after watching five plump, white-haired women in plastic hairnets spin the chocolate into such confections as "Phantom of the Opera" masks and pink high heels, he ventured: "Do you actually eat the chocolate or do you get sick of it?" They giggled at his silliness.
He looked even more concerned when he was offered a chocolate cake with white chocolate frosting. "Oh, man!" he said. "That's too decadent for me."
One of the most valuable lessons the gritty Hillary can teach the languid Obama — and the timid Democrats — is that the whole point of a presidential race is to win.
It's not to share power, or force the squabbling couple into an arranged marriage. The winner wins, even if it's only by a fraction of a percentage point or one Supreme Court justice. Winning has no margin of error, as the Democrats should have learned by now. And the winner gets to decide his or her running mate.
But the ultimate favor Hillary can do for the Illinois freshman is to fight him full-out until the finale and then gracefully release him so he can find happiness with another.
Hillary's work is done only when she is done, because the best way for Obama to prove he's ready to stare down Ahmadinejad is by putting away someone even tougher.
c.2008 New York Times News Service