The Magazine

An Exceedingly Strange New Respect

Hillary Clinton makes friends in some surprising precincts.

May 12, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 33 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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'Strange new respect' is the term coined by Tom Bethell, an unhappy conservative, to describe the press adulation given those who drift leftward, those who grow "mature," "wise," and "thoughtful" as they cause apoplexy in right-wingers, and leave their old allies behind. But no new respect has been quite so peculiar as that given by some on the right to Hillary Clinton--since 1992 their ultimate nightmare--whose possible triumph in this year's election has been the source of their most intense fear. Lately, however, a strange thing has happened: A tactical hope to see her campaign flourish--to keep the brawl going and knock dents in Obama--has changed to, at least in some cases, a grudging respect for the lady herself. Actually, they may not have changed quite so much as she has (who knows, perhaps merely changed in her image and tactics), but the Hillary of May 2008 is radically different from the Hillary of two months ago, much less the one of last year, or of eight years back. And this one (at least till the nomination is settled) has some traits the right wing can love.

First of all, she is tough. Boy, is she tough. Next to John McCain's torture and FDR's polio (or John Kennedy's terrible health and PT-109 put together), she has arguably been through more harrowing times than any major contender in history. Hillary may not have been tortured for six years by the North Vietnamese, but her marriage to Bill could have seemed the equivalent, and surely her life since the start of this year has been torturous in the extreme. One of the problems that conservatives had with Hillary before this is that she often seemed to be playing the victim, trying to use unearned power, looking for outs and excuses, trying to have things both ways. As first lady, she seemed to think that she and Bill had both been elected and she had a right to half of his power, which she used, sometimes misused, but didn't want to answer for. When criticized, she tried to evade the accounting by saying she was only the wife.

She campaigned hard and diligently when she ran for the Senate, but she was elected largely as a reward for her personal suffering, and she had behind her (which Al Gore resented) the full force of the White House publicity and patronage organization and an overwhelming advantage in funds. Again, she was a diligent senator, but the only reason she entered the 2008 race as the Democratic frontrunner was the presence of the machine built up by her husband, the web of backers and donors and favors a two-term president has at his disposal, and the president himself, thought at the time to be a master campaigner. She was invincible. She was inevitable. She was proceeding unperturbed to a largely unearned coronation. But that was then.

Fast forward two months into the new year and into the contest, and suddenly all this was gone: Barack Obama had the Big Mo and the huge cash advantage, Bill Clinton had become a distinctly mixed blessing, and old "friends" and backers had run for the hills, fleeing the ship that they assumed to be sinking and jumping onto the sleeker new frigate nearby. Each day brought another instance of treachery and/or self-preservation. Old allies deserted, the press now assailed her. The Kennedys, who once fêted her and her mate during happier days on the Vineyard, bestowed their fraying prestige upon her opponent. Obama was the new JFK, the new RFK, or, some even implied, the messiah. She was the obstacle, the impediment, the residue of past scandals; the woman who was in the way.

One observer once said that the main importance of PT-109 in the life of John Kennedy was that it was the only time in his life (until he was murdered) when the power and wealth of his father couldn't help him at all. Hillary in February 2008, after Obama's stunning string of 10 victories, was like JFK in the water--everything she was used to relying on had proved to be useless, except that in her case the people around her kept trying to hold her head under, insisting it was for her, and of course for the party's, own good. In these dire straits, Hillary channeled her inner survivor, and, like John Kennedy, became a Gut Fighter writ large. She fought her way to an island, dragging her crew mates behind her, fed them on coconuts, and sent word for rescue. And then it came. "This one's for you!" she cried out to her base in hard-pressed Ohio as she pulled out the Big One, to their riotous cheers.

It was about this time that her presentation, and her persona, underwent notable change.