Clinton gets her party started

Wins in Massachusetts, California and other big states, plus an uncommonly good speech by their candidate, made a New York Super Tuesday crowd very happy.

Published February 6, 2008 12:20PM (EST)

It sure did feel funereal at the start of Hillary Clinton's "Election Night Celebration" in the grand ballroom of the slightly dingy Manhattan Center Studios on West 34th Street. The Clinton people looked weary after weeks of being buffeted by wave after wave of Obama-mania. Pundits had forecast such a surge that as the East Coast polls started to close on Tuesday night, it seemed possible -- perhaps likely -- that the Illinois senator could squelch, if not technically end, Clinton's blazing drive to the White House.

As numbers started coming in, however, the mood in the small ballroom shifted swiftly. Apparently, eager-beaver media prognosticators had learned little from their inexact predictions of a Hillary flame-out in New Hampshire. In fact, the over-juiced excitement about an impending Obama revolution gave the Clinton people just the jolt of unexpected joy they needed, and an opportunity for their candidate to appear not simply as a competitor in an uncomfortably tight race, but as a predicted loser who -- sleekly, nimbly, capably, presidentially! -- again had dodged a charismatic young bullet from Chicago.

Clinton certainly looked sleek and presidential, in a yellow suit jacket, trailed by her daughter and husband, as she took the stage three hours after her party started. The campaign clearly learned something, both from her lackluster South Carolina concession, and from the warmth with which Obama's smooth poetic orations have been received. Tuesday's address by Clinton was far more lyrical than any she has so far given, full of references to Emma Lazarus and rhythmic invocations of those Americans "on the day shift, on the night shift, on the late shift with the crying baby ... all those who aren't in the headlines but who have always written America's story."

Clinton staked victorious ground by aiming her fightin' words not at her opponent for the Democratic nomination -- whom she briefly congratulated on his Super Tuesday victories -- but at the Republicans with whom she hopes to tangle in November, making particular reference to John McCain by chiding those "who see five years in Iraq and wonder, 'Why not 100 more?'" Clinton got a little New Deal-y, talking up the rebuilding of the American infrastructure and a revamped GI Bill of Rights that would allow veterans to go to college, buy homes and start businesses. And she tugged on the heartstrings of the women who, if early exit-polling data is to be believed, helped ensure her more-than-respectable Tuesday showing, by invoking her mother, "who was born before women could vote and is watching her daughter on this stage tonight."

The crowd, so despondent when they had entered the room, was euphoric; people hugged and wiped tears of happiness and relief from their eyes as a cannon shot red, white and blue confetti over the proceedings.

"This is a very, very good night," a grinning Jay Carson, Clinton's traveling press secretary, had told me a few minutes before his boss began to speak. "Tonight just shows that when voters get a chance to vote, the pundits and the conventional wisdom often turn out to be wrong." Asked whether he himself had sweated the possibility of a broad Obama upset, Carson replied, "Senator Clinton is a winner, so I always believe she is going to win," before pausing briefly. "But," he continued, "there are times when all the pundits are saying x is true and you're the person saying y is true. And at a certain point, if everyone else is saying x, it's easy to begin to feel a little crazy."

Carson didn't ascribe any malicious motives to the press's desire to once again write a narrative with Obama as champ. "I just think there is a tendency for people to get all spun up about these things, and sometimes when that happens we need to take a deep breath and remember that the only polls that count are the ones that opened this morning."

Jonathan Mantz, Clinton's finance director, had the look of a relieved man, but spoke with bravado about the senator's fortunes. "I lived through Iowa and I went to New Hampshire," said Mantz. "You've got to keep the faith in the candidate." Mantz was most elated about the Massachusetts win, which he spun as a major upset in a state where Obama had picked up some of his most visible, and potentially powerful, endorsements. "We know how badly Senator Kennedy and Senator Kerry wanted that state," said Mantz. "The fact that we're winning it is very gratifying."

When the official numbers are tallied and the delegates divvied up, Super Tuesday will likely look like an exceptionally close result between two well-matched and highly competitive candidates. But going into Tuesday night, it felt as though Hillary Clinton was about to get walloped, and as the evening started, her supporters had milled distractedly around the ballroom, projecting not blithe confidence, but a palpable sense that they had come a long way to get what perhaps would be their final look at their candidate.

Sheryl Goldfeder, a 52-year-old travel agent, had traveled from Great Neck, Long Island, to get a glimpse of Clinton, and when asked if she would support Obama were he the Democratic candidate, she emphatically shook her head. "I'm Jewish," said Goldfeder, "and I haven't heard him say a word about Israel." Goldfeder's friend Colette Aaronson, 66, added wistfully that she had called her daughters earlier in the day and told them that she was coming to this event, "because I wanted my granddaughters to know that this was something they can achieve in their lifetimes." Her words had the ring of a dream deferred, rather than one that was about to be realized.

When the first results showing Clinton leading in Massachusetts and New Jersey began to appear on the screen, the initially listless party had begun to swell and sway. The crowd, liberally studded with black, brown and young faces, was far more diverse than the older white female following that Clinton purportedly attracts. Liza Stutts, a 26-year-old business school student, said "a lot of my friends are really struggling to decide between Obama and Clinton," adding, "what frustrates me about it is that it has divided people who have fairly similar views."

Michael Barakat, the assistant principal at the Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx, was waving excitedly at several of his students, seated in the bleachers behind the podium at which Clinton would be delivering her address. Were these 17- and 18-year-old students, who have traveled with the campaign to New Hampshire and South Carolina, prepared for the heartbreak of what still looked like a possible rout? "They're 17 and 18 years old," said Barakat. "They don't think about defeat. And heartbreak is a daily occurrence for them."

As the Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" played over the speakers, 63-year-old Edgar Ramsey, who runs the Sweet Potato Pie Inc., a wholesale bakery business in New Jersey, was explaining why he has thrown his support behind Clinton's candidacy. "Obama is just not ready yet," said Ramsey. "He still has time; he's good, he's educated, he's an orator, he'll be great in eight years. But Hillary, she is the lady right now!"

Nearby, magazine editor Tina Brown and her husband, Harry Evans, had joined the party. Brown, whose book "The Diana Chronicles," was a best-seller this summer, has just signed on to write "The Clinton Chronicles." "I'm here for my book," she said, when asked about her interest in the evening. "But my daughter is a huge Hillary nut and I promised her I'd come tonight." Brown's daughter Isabel, who attends boarding school, had apparently just played Clinton in the mock debate. "She crushed Obama," said Brown as she faded efficiently into the throng.

Clinton fundraiser Fred Hochberg, the dean of the Milano School for Management and Urban Policy at the New School, and a former Clinton administration official, appeared thrilled by the results that were now flashing on-screen. Had he been nervous earlier in the day? "You know, elections are always full of anxiety," Hochberg said diplomatically. He added, "I think it's tougher for women. I run a school for public policy, and I think women have a harder time in executive roles than in legislative or advocacy roles." Would this hurt Clinton in a general election? "She's just got to work harder," said Hochberg with a shrug, introducing me to his 59-year-old housekeeper Gertha Celestin, a Haitian-born U.S. citizen who has been getting out the Haitian vote for Hillary. "She's a strong woman, she's a strong leader. She's my girl!" said Celestin.

Nearby, writer Honor Moore was looking mildly stricken. The Clinton supporter said that she had been "nervous for a week" about reports of Clinton's foundering campaign, in part because she knows so many Obama converts. "They are a lot of writers and young people, a certain kind of '60s liberal, who just love him," she said. When asked what kind of '60s liberal she was describing, Moore gave an explanation simultaneously oblique and damning. "I think things are so complicated and unpleasant that the idea of an inspiring leader who can erase all these conflicts, rather than go through and deal with them, is very appealing," she said. "It's a way of blanking all the problems out. It's a wonderful idea, but it just doesn't work."

As Moore was explaining this, a very loud man named George Banks walked by and mimicked a spanking on a woman standing next to him. "We beat their butts!" Banks shouted, leaning toward Moore and exclaiming, "Sister, go! We are going to win everything!" Around us, the crowd was chanting a riff on Obama's tag line: "Yes she can! Yes she can!"

"Obama is not ready to be president of the United States," Banks was yelling to anyone who'd listen. "The press in the United States has misused and polished him and got him all confused. We need to fire Wolf Blitzer! We need to fire Tim Russert!" Banks was now hollering loudly enough to attract a good deal of attention, including from 80-year-old Bernard Schwartz, a Clinton donor who made a successful effort to calm Liberian native Banks.

Asked if he had imagined this gathering would be such a raucous celebration, Schwartz made no bones about his doubts. "Absolutely not," he said. "I'm surprised and happy." Schwartz, the former CEO of Loral Space and Communications -- "I used to make satellites," is how he dreamily described his career -- attributed his grim assumptions about the evening to an overzealous press. "The media made a race out of it that wasn't quite real," he said. "I don't mean that Obama is out of the race completely, but it wasn't this sweep that they were promising."

Like so many Clinton supporters, Schwartz seemed to be going to great pains to be gracious about Obama -- realizing perhaps that to be generous is also to assume the position of power. "This is a terrific day," said Schwartz. "You have a black person who didn't have huge political credentials battling with a woman making it on her own, despite what people say about Bill. This is America at its best. These two people fighting it out is such an optimistic thing for America."

Also magnanimous was Marvin Rosen, former Democratic party finance chair under Bill Clinton, and a Hillary supporter. "I think Obama has clearly done well and helped energize young people, which is good for the Democratic Party," said Rosen. That said, he expressed the same skepticism about the predictive data that his compatriots did. "It's become very difficult to really rely on some of the polls," he said with a broad smile.

Around him, the Clinton campaign, which seems to have borrowed John Edwards' iPod along with his ideas about the eradication of poverty, was blasting Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising."

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