The witch ain't dead, and Chris Matthews is a ding-dong

The glee with which Matthews and other angry male pundits prematurely danced on Hillary's grave made me -- for one night only -- a Clinton supporter.

Published January 9, 2008 3:30PM (EST)

"I'm not a Hillary supporter, but ..." has been an oft-heard preamble in the five days since the New York senator's Iowa defeat, usually followed by a description of how aghast the speaker is at the treatment Clinton received from a media anxious to throw a hoedown on her political coffin. To my surprise, it's a phrase I've heard myself uttering, before launching a tirade about the premature death certificate signed by pundits for a candidate I have never really wanted to win.

As it turns out, my sudden, almost primal defensiveness about Hillary Clinton may not have been unique, but part of a larger wave of sentiment that swept her to a surprise victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday night. Others like me, who were "not Hillary supporters, but ...," were downright mortified by the eagerness with which cable news networks, the New York Times, the Boston Globe and even her opponents felt free to declare Clinton yesterday's news. Their dismay and disgust may have been just the boost she needed to pole-vault to today's triumphant headlines, as not liking Hillary took a back seat to hating those who would summarily eject her from a race even more. On Tuesday, New Hampshire voters served up a major "Fuck you" -- not to Barack Obama, whose numbers were terrific, and who gave a great concession speech, but to those who revealed their pent-up resentment of Hillary and showed her the door way, way too soon.

Unlike its sister gem, "I'm not a feminist, but ..." (an utterance that nearly always gives away the fact that its speaker is in fact a feminist), the Hillary disavowal, in my case, has been true: I really am not a Hillary Clinton supporter. A feminist by trade, I have wished that I could get behind Clinton, a woman I admired when she first arrived in the White House 15 years ago. But there has been nothing in her steady, ineluctable move to the center that I could embrace; I understood why she did it, but it cost her my support. (I'm sure that Clinton would not have considered this a worrisome loss until, perhaps, this week; my support has not historically been a leading indicator of presidential success.) While I'm not the kind of journalist for whom true objectivity is a realistic goal, I am one who aims to report fairly on the election, and so it has been comfortable not to have been sure of my horse this time around, even as I've been beguiled by the variety of competitors circling the track.

But if I'd had a horse, it would have been named John, or Dennis, or Barack, before it was named Hillary, a fact that caused consternation in more than a few of my acquaintances, especially those second-wave baby boomers who saw my lack of Clinton support as a youthful shrugging off of a shared feminist, or perhaps female, responsibility. Sure, I know it's long past time for a female president, but my hubris has been in believing that Clinton is not the one I have to devote myself to -- my careless presumption being that there will be loads more satisfactory models to choose from in the near future.

So no, I have not been a Hillary Clinton supporter. But the torrent of ill-disguised hatred and resentment unleashed toward a briefly weakened Clinton this week shook that breezy naiveté right out of me, and made me feel something that all the hectoring from feminist elders could not: guilt for not having stood up for Hillary. I can't believe I'm saying this, but had I been a New Hampshire voter on Tuesday, I would have pulled a lever for the former first lady with a song in my heart and a bird flipped at MSNBC's Chris Matthews, a man whose interest in bringing Clinton down hovers on the pathological, and whose drooling excitement at the prospect of her humiliation began to pulse from the television last week before most Iowa precincts had even begun to report results.

Before any tallies were in, Matthews was observing, based on early projections, that if Clinton received the expected 30 percent, it would mean that seven of 10 Iowa voters did not like her, a mean little metric that he did not apply to the other candidates. "It's hard to call yourself the people's choice if two-thirds of the Democrats are voting against you!" he burbled.

He was not alone in his glee. There was the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, announcing before the caucuses had concluded that if Clinton lost Iowa, she would likely lose New Hampshire too! And South Carolina! She'd be lucky to scrape by with small states like Nevada, Matthews crowed. Newsweek's Howard Fineman was also excited. "If [Obama] wins this thing, even by one vote in Iowa, then that five-point lead of Hillary's [in New Hampshire] is going to disappear in a second," he said. Pat Buchanan recommended that in her still purely imagined concession speech, Clinton "be very, very gracious." It wasn't just the guys. Andrea Mitchell might as well have had canary feathers hanging from her mouth as she reported from Clinton's Iowa campaign headquarters on the "manufactured" crowd gathered for Clinton's concession speech.

Ding-dong, the witch is dead! Which old witch? The Clinton witch!

Why were so few of them mentioning that less than a year ago, Camp Clinton was considering giving Iowa a pass altogether, as her husband had in 1992? That even when she was the "inevitable" front-runner, it seemed a real possibility that John Edwards would trounce her there? In the midst of excitement over the huge turnout, the youth of the Iowa participants and the history-making Obama victory, it seemed irrational to hear the talking heads commenting not on the strength of a Democratic field in which three candidates carved up votes fairly evenly, but instead falling all over themselves to throw mama from the presidential train.

But the Iowa commentary was just a warm-up for the post-Iowa free-for-all, in which everyone from the New York Times to Keith Olbermann speculated giddily, practically drunkenly, about when, exactly, Clinton would pack it in. After just one caucus, in which she had garnered almost a third of votes that were split among three candidates. Here was Matthews on "Hardball," the night after Iowa, proclaiming, "For Clinton, what was once considered inevitable is now barely likely." "Could New Hampshire end the Democratic primary race?" leered Olbermann on Monday.

For many of these pundits, especially those who pander to a mostly white male audience, a nearly pornographic investment in Clinton's demise is nothing new. Matthews made his career as a pundit in that heady era of Clinton-bashing, the 1990s. That Hillary Clinton's political career might not have only survived his wrath but grown more fulsome on it seems to have incited him further, and Matthews has shown hyperactive zeal in his hatred for her. That leads him, often, to imagine Clinton strategy and imaginatively discredit it before it unfolds, or to offer helpful Clinton-beating tips to her opponents. Eight years ago, when Utah financial advisor Howard Ruff began taking donations to bring down Hillary -- who was not yet even a senator -- he appeared on "Hardball," where he explained to Matthews that in a battle against Hillary's nascent political power, "It's a lot easier to kill a 12-inch snake than a 12-foot cobra." Matthews helped him sharpen his weaponry: "You want to destroy the missile in its silo, which makes sense to me." The night after Iowa, Matthews went from asking Elizabeth Edwards, "Do you think your husband has a better chance of winning the nomination if you first knock Hillary out of the race?" to coaching her, "Even if Barack has to win up here [in New Hampshire], it's better to knock Hillary out because if she is knocked out, then you two can fight it out, John Edwards and Barack Obama."

But if the cable talking heads have a longtime commitment to taking down Hillary, their premature party throwing after Iowa was downright infectious. So cooked was Clinton's goose that she became not just the loser of the week but someone of so little consequence that it was all right -- a hoot even! -- for the Washington Post's Dana Milbank to head to New Hampshire and make a droll little video about just how deadly dull her rallies were. Apparently, she answered voters' questions for over an hour! Milbank's video showed audience members yawning, then trickling out.

It's not that the eagerness to dispose of Clinton was motivated purely by the fact that she was a woman. It was also inextricably linked to an excitement about Obama's use of the magic word "change." It was connected to the enthusiasm for Obama, period. It was the fact that the Clinton team behaves as if it is above needing the press, which in turn becomes reciprocally eager to chomp the hand that refuses to feed it. It was because Bill Clinton's old black magic had expired, because Hillary looks like a boring Al Gore-style wonk next to the charismatic dynamism of her most serious opponent.

But underneath it all ran an unmistakable vibe, the loosening of a clenched resentment that it was a chick who had dared be confident about her ability to win, who had exercised infuriating control over the press, who had exerted uncomfortable and unrelenting dominion over her male competitors. When Clinton lost her grip, ever so slightly, over that dominion, there was a release of rip-roaring, rollicking fun at her expense.

She was, after all that inevitability, just a girl. A nerdy girl at that, and an ugly, hysterical one, the tabloids showed us, with freeze-framed images of her caught making unflattering faces. The words thrown around about her fizzed with ill-disguised misogynistic energy: In her presumptive defeat, Clinton suddenly was shrill, panicked, desperate, emotional. On ABC's blog, Jake Tapper wrote of her New Hampshire debate performance that while "bickering" with Obama about health insurance, Clinton "... well ... she got angry." Tapper didn't see her as mad "about an issue, so much, as about the fact that Obama is beating her ... Pundits will say that her tone made male voters recoil. And led some female voters to sneer." This was femininity on the edge -- the winner losing, and losing her marbles.

Then, of course, she cried. Or, more precisely, allowed her voice to crack and her eyes to well up. How much girlier can you get? Here were just some of the congested headlines: "Clinton Fights Back Tears," "Clinton Gets Emotional," "Hillary Gets Leaky."

Such joy was there at Clinton's devolving journey from the front of the pack back to the primordial stew of high-strung, overwrought femininity that even her opponent John Edwards, a man who built his candidacy in part with the support of progressive women, felt free to get in on the fun, reacting to Clinton's show of feeling by telling reporters that a president needs to demonstrate "strength and resolve."

The five days between Iowa and New Hampshire were discombobulating for anyone who had begun to get comfortable with the apparent ease with which American history had weirdly, smoothly made room for a female candidate. A woman had led the Democratic nominees for nearly a year with barely a whisper -- save for the occasional unflattering wrinkled photo -- of serious double-standard resistance from a nation that has yet to break its streak of white Christian guys sitting behind the Oval Office desk. It had all been so deceptively easy. But here were the buttoned-up white boys over at "Meet the Press" going all "Lord of the Flies" on her. Cintra Wilson called the spectacle "a little witch-burny," while Time's Michael Scherer blogged about a call he'd received from a conservative pundit who told him, "The witch is dead, and life is going to change." The pundits, Clinton's opponents, her colleagues -- they were making sport of Hillary's immolation. They were rolling in it. Exulting in it. It reeked of a particular kind of relief, relief from the guys who had thought they were going to have to hold their noses and get pushed around by some dame. They were behaving like men who had received a sudden and unexpected reprieve, and classily reacted by pulling down their pants and peeing on her.

And then ... people began to notice. In my circle, mothers in particular began to notice. My friends and colleagues told me of their despondent moms. Even my own, whose politics list far to the left of Clinton's, bowled me over by expressing her sadness about the treatment Hillary received. I think she was surprised herself as she confessed that she was "sad" about Iowa. "Whether or not it's Hillary," she said, "I just think this shows that any woman who's going to be aggressive enough to make a go of it is going to be too aggressive to be likable."

Gloria Steinem noticed. The Ms. founder wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times called "Women Are Never Front-Runners," a piece that was assertively retro in its "Our Bodies Ourselves," "Free to Be ... You and Me" rhetoric. Steinem pointed out that a woman with Obama's résumé would never have become even a U.S. senator, let alone a viable candidate for president; she reminded readers that black men got the right to vote 50 years before women did, that Obama "is seen as unifying by his race while [Clinton] is seen as divisive by her sex," that "she is accused of 'playing the gender card' when citing the old boys' club, while he is seen as unifying by citing civil rights confrontations," that "some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system; thus Iowa women over 50 and 60 ... proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age." God, it was so embarrassing, so 1972, so Women's Studies 101. What was more embarrassing was that it was so right on. And I wasn't the only one who thought so. From practically the moment it was published through the results of the New Hampshire primary, Steinem's Op-Ed has been the most e-mailed story in the New York Times.

Hillary Clinton noticed, and called Chris Matthews out for being "obsessed" with her. He meekly responded, "It's not obsession," and then broadcast the moment proudly on his Sunday morning show. He also pinched her cheek.

Some young feminists -- in the demographic that was supposed to have thrown over the woman in favor of one charismatic man or another -- noticed, and took Edwards to task for his toothy opportunism, and the media for their bizarrely antiquated double standards.

By the time the New Hampshire numbers started to roll in on Tuesday night, the pundits were beginning to notice that something, though they couldn't quite put their finger on what, was not turning out as they had so jeeringly, confidently predicted. Women, it seemed, had come to the polls in New Hampshire and voted for Hillary Clinton.

Suddenly, the choking up that had the day before been either faked or a sign of her unraveling was being credited with changing people's minds. "I never saw her like that before," said Jack Cafferty on CNN. "Sympathetic. Real." CNN's Gloria Borger informed us that "there is a lot of talk tonight about whether Hillary's tearing up made any difference," noting that a striking percentage of female Hillary voters told exit pollsters that they had decided whom to vote for on that very day, and had, for a variety of reasons, given Hillary Clinton the New Hampshire primary.

Meanwhile, Matthews was flailing. Color had begun to drain from his face as the early, close results began to trickle in. He looked like he had swallowed something much less tasty than what had been served up in Iowa. Halfway through the night he had his arms crossed defensively across his chest, a petulant and shamed schoolboy, and was proclaiming that he "was in the room" at Saturday night's debate and had thought it "a draw," but that apparently Clinton's performance had been "good enough here for women who wanted to root for her." He desperately recited the numbers of every pollster who had predicted her loss like a catechism, focusing on how it was not just he who had misfired. There must be some supernatural explanation: Could voters have been responding to Clinton's tears? Was it because the University of New Hampshire was not in session? Surely these numbers would change, and prove him right. Hillary could not simply have been winning an election.

Tom Brokaw, reduced to being a guest on Matthews' show, since he is retired and his network is reluctant to break into reality show programming to bring prospective viewers news of the presidential election, had also apparently noticed the treatment Clinton had received in the grabby hands of his colleagues, and seemed to relish his opportunity to spank Matthews. "This is one of the great triumphs of American presidential politics," Brokaw said sternly, "and the rest of us who were saying out loud that this was not going to happen, we've got a lot of explaining to do." Every time he appeared again, Brokaw seemed anxious to hammer this point home. "The people out there are going to begin to make some judgments about us if we don't begin to temper that temptation to constantly get ahead of what the voters are deciding," he told Matthews, who reflexively barked back about the commitment and quality of polling institutions. Polling "is a lot less important than letting this process go forward as it should," said Brokaw.

"The press was dead wrong," said Pat Buchanan. "We had virtually canonized Obama and said he'd been born in Bethlehem ... Something has happened here ... The press has been telling us she's gone and the women came out and said no, she's not. What New Hampshire did was stand up and come out and body-slam the national press, the pollsters, the whole bunch."

"Do you know who they're blaming?" liberal Air America pundit Rachel Maddow asked Matthews with a huge grin in her voice as she cited Talking Points Memo. "They're blaming Chris Matthews. People are citing specifically Chris not only for his own views but as a symbol of what the mainstream is doing."

Is it possible that for the first time in my life, my reaction to a political news cycle could have mirrored a larger national feeling? Could Matthews and his threatened brethren, who came damned close to putting this Hillary disbeliever on the path to feminist redemption (who knows how I'll vote; but I do know that I am happy that I'll now likely have the opportunity to cast a vote for the candidate of my choice and not of MSNBC's), actually have shaped what happened on Tuesday in New Hampshire in a similar fashion? Exit polling and analysis be damned, we'll likely never really know what electoral alchemy landed Hillary Clinton an unexpected victory. Finally, around 11:30, Matthews was forced to suck it up. Looking like he was chewing on a lemon, he said of his nemesis, "She stood there and took the heat under what looked to be a difficult time. I give her a lot of personal credit. I will never underestimate Hillary Clinton again."

An unlikely promise. But here's a message from the women of New Hampshire, and me, to Hillary Clinton's exuberant media antagonists: You have no power here. Now be gone, before somebody drops a house on you!

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton John Edwards Msnbc