NEW YORK – Let’s be frank: There are more than a few levels on which what has happened in Iowa - and its carryover - is the Clintons’ worst nightmare. The shining aspect of the Clintons’ politics has always been their understanding of the tragedy of race in America. Each has spoken eloquently - publicly and privately - of the day when a black candidate for president would capture the imagination of the country, and be elected.
But never did the Clintons anticipate that it might occur on Hillary’s watch as a candidate for president herself, in opposition to them.
Twice, as a teenager, she went to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preach, and his effect on her was profound. When he was killed, Hillary was a student at Wellesley College. Her reaction on hearing of his death was almost a breakdown.
“I can't stand it any more! I can’t take it,” she screamed, and threw her bookbag against the wall. She was shaking and shouting. (She subsequently led student protests at Wellesley demanding increased black admissions, and other compensatory responses.)
Years later, when she moved into the White House, her chief of staff was Maggie Williams, a black woman. Her mentor, as a lawyer and children’s advocate, was Marion Wright Edelman, a black woman. Bill Clinton has often identified his three heroes as Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, and Dr. King.
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On Thursday night, Barack Obama concluded a remarkable, stirring speech that, whatever the outcome of the 2008 election, it will be regarded as historic. CNN’s Anderson Cooper and I discussed on-air what we were witnessing.
Her "third place finish to Barack Obama” was “probably the worst outcome for her today," Cooper observed.
But the circumstances were worse than merely finishing third, or Obama’s stunning 40 percent of the vote, I responded. Seventy percent of Democratic voters in Iowa had voted against her. When she finally met in a ballroom with her supporters after the numbers were beyond redeem, she gave a tired variation of her stump speech – in stark contrast to Obama’s sense of the history of the occasion.
Obama’s campaign was becoming a crusade.
"This is a great night for Democrats," Hillary, no longer her party’s frontrunner had announced. "Together, we have presented the case for change and have made it absolutely clear that America needs a new beginning."
Cooper asked, "How does Hillary Clinton now go on tomorrow?" He added that Bill Clinton would continue to campaign with his wife in New Hampshire.
Watching the former president on the screen, I responded: "You could see the devastation on Bill Clinton's face tonight. They are going to have to regroup. They are going to have to come up with a different rationale for this campaign, because what we heard Obama say tonight is: this is about Republicans. This is about independents. There's going to be a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, not just in New Hampshire, but through all those 20 Super Tuesday states. And that fight is going to be about who can best reach out and unite the country - because Obama knows that the rap on Hillary Clinton is that she's polarizing, is that she's divisive.
"And the Clintons now have to come up with a rationale that shows they are not [a divisive force] and they can unite the country, unite the party. It's a very difficult thing to pull off, after that inspirational speech, on top of which, you know, you looked at the people behind Hillary and Bill Clinton. They were old faces.” Among them, Madeline Albright, the Clinton Secretary of State; Terry McAuliffe, the family fund-raiser.
“Another thing that has been repudiated tonight is this idea of restoration of the Clintons plural, to the White House,” I said. “That was an underlying issue here. And it figures with the age-group breakdown that we have seen in CNN's exit and entrance polls. So, there has to be a whole new rationale. Why is Hillary Clinton now qualified to be the president of the United States, and what does she do to unite this country?”
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Hillary Rodham Clinton is nothing if not resilient.
Perseverance and resilience — especially in response to humiliation (make no mistake: the rejection of her candidacy in Iowa was a real humiliation) — are the strongest threads in the tapestry of her life, along with religion and family.
On Friday, traveling to New Hampshire the day after the devastation of Iowa, Hillary and her apparat embraced the “change theme” that she had previously ridiculed Obama for asserting and mocked with her mantra of “experience.”
“[T]he message in New Hampshire has been working,” Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson insisted following the Iowa caucuses. “It’s who she is as a person, her experience making change, the importance of picking a president that is ready. That won’t change.”
It is difficult to imagine how she is going to steal the “change” issue from Obama.
In the paperback edition of my biography of Hillary Clinton, “A Woman In Charge,” there is this conclusion in a new afterword written in October:
“Inside the Clinton machine, the Obama challenge and, in particular, its central claim of representing necessary change in what Democrats had to offer, made an impression. ‘She realizes she can’t match him in the change department,’ said Deborah Sale [one of the Clintons’ oldest and closest friends. ] ‘He’s of a different generation and she’s been around for a long time. The Clinton administration is a very big plus for her, but it’s also a minus. And she knows it. She can hardly deny it. She emphasizes the positive. No one expected this kind of opposition, and she knows he’s strong and savvy.’”
The afterword concludes:
“So, in the end, Hillary for President had come down to Restoration, a co-presidency in which all the considerable talents and experiences of both Clintons and the hard lessons learned by each would be applied to reversing the catastrophes, ennui, and grievous misgovernance” of the Bush presidency.
“[T]he task was to convince voters that the Restoration would not be a voyage back to the future but rather would entrust the nation’s governance to the stewardship of a magical political pair whose priorities were indeed ‘progressive’ in the best sense, moving forward carefully from the perilous era just past, but with ideas culled from their vast experience and association with the brightness and best minds, with Bill’s voracious intellectualism, and with her sturdy, can-do optimism and rigor….
“They were very much a team, and that is how they increasingly presented themselves…. ‘I’m running because I think I can win and I can take the White House back for us, and, frankly, build on the positive of the nineties and avoid some of the mistakes,’ she said. She did not define us.”
Carl Bernstein, a CNN contributing analyst, is the author of "A Woman In Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton." The paperback, with a new afterword, will be released on Tuesday, the day of the New Hampshire primary. To learn more go to carlbernstein.com