The tracks of her tears

New Hampshire Dems judged Clinton best qualified to be commander in chief. Working class voters backed her. So why does everyone want to talk about her tears? Plus: The Clintons and race.

Published January 13, 2008 4:09AM (EST)

I normally enjoy Judith Warner in the New York Times, but her column Friday felt warmed over, like she used shards that Maureen Dowd left behind on her way to file her predictably nasty election night column from Jerusalem. "If victory came for the reasons we've been led to believe -- because women voters ultimately saw in her, exhausted and near defeat, a countenance that mirrored their own -- then I hate what that victory says about the state of their lives and the nature of the emotions they carry forward into this race," the overwrought Warner wrote. What would it take for Warner or Dowd to follow up on the fascinating tidbit I pointed to on election night -- that exit polls showed Democratic voters found Clinton the most trustworthy commander in chief? How does that square with the now congealing conventional wisdom that she won The Crying Game? The New Republic flicked at it here.

Or what about the exit poll data showing that Clinton was the choice of working class voters, normally no fool for a watery-eyed wealthy white woman? It's really quite amazing how much attention Clinton's teary moment has gotten, compared to all that exit poll data. Forgive me for bringing class into it (always bad manners in American politics) but there seems to be a bit of a professional women's backlash against Clinton's vulnerable moment, that's borne of a fear that it will set us all back, Judith Warner and Maureen Dowd and, hell, probably me too. But I'm much more interested in the reaction of working class women, white and black, in Nevada and South Carolina, to Clinton's new economic appeals. If Clinton's tears hurt my standing as a white professional woman, God forbid, I'll cry tomorrow. I want to pay attention to what's really going on in this presidential race today.

I'm actually much more interested in the reaction to both Clintons' remarks on race this week. I went back on MSNBC's "Hardball" for the first time in a month on Friday, and I got to challenge my friend Chris Matthews' soundbite approach to Bill Clinton's radio interview with Al Sharpton, about his using the term "fairy tale" in reference to Barack Obama's campaign. Clinton came out swinging, and said it wasn't true he referred to the historic Obama crusade that way, and Matthews kinda sorta called him a liar, making another play on what the definition of "is," is. In fact, as I said on the show, Clinton told the truth: he had used "fairy tale" to refer not to Obama's candidacy, but to his claim he had always opposed the Iraq war, when Clinton found inconsistencies in his antiwar record. You can argue over Obama's Iraq stands, you can argue over whether Clinton should have used the term "fairy tale," but it isn't fair to claim Clinton dismissed Obama's presidential run as a fairy tale. He simply didn't.

But clearly the Clintons are spending time doing some post New Hampshire, pre South Carolina cleaning up. Hillary Clinton has already tried to clarify her tin-eared remarks about how the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. needed Lyndon Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Act. True and tin-eared at the same time. Nobody wants to hear white people saying black people wouldn't have gotten their civil rights without us. Blech. Clearly, Johnson spent political capital to do what he did, but he'd never have been there without the sacrifice and energy and brilliance of untold black activists and strategists, King being the most famous. There's been an endless debate over whether Clinton's infamous teary moment was borne of exhaustion, but I think she and the campaign should find a way to say the LBJ quote was in fact the campaign's running-on-fumes low moment, and she should come back at it another way in South Carolina.

I have done no reporting in South Carolina, so I want to qualify my speculation as exactly that. But I still think it's unlikely South Carolina's Democratic dean, Rep. James Clyburn, will make good on his threat to endorse Obama (after promising party leaders he'd stay neutral, in order to get the primary placed there) over the Clintons' LBJ/fairy tale slips, as reported in the New York Times today. But he was sending a message that they have to be clear and careful about their rhetoric. But even if Clyburn endorses Obama, Clinton must still run in South Carolina like she's running in Nevada in the wake of the Culinary Workers' endorsement of Obama: Humbly, door to door, asking for individuals' support. Her Nevada strategy, at least, could pay off: the Culinary Workers are 58% women, and Clinton proved in New Hampshire she can grab working class votes, while Obama is pulling in affluent college grads. Nevada will be interesting. So will South Carolina. Stay tuned.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections