A Surmountable Hill

Republicans and conservatives have been trying to sink Mrs. Clinton for years, but she keeps bob-bob-bobbing along. “Oh those Clinton haters, what’s wrong with them?”

Only a Democrat could hurt her, and a Democrat just did. Hollywood titan David Geffen, who now supports Barack Obama, this week famously retagged the Clintons as an Ivy League Bonnie and Clyde. Bill is “reckless,” Hillary relentless—”God knows, is there anybody more ambitious than Hillary?” In an interview that seemed like an audience, with the New York Times’s Maureen Dowd, Mr. Geffen said, “Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it’s troubling.” In this he was, knowingly or unknowingly, echoing Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator, who said in 1996 of the then-president, “Clinton’s an unusually good liar. Unusually good. Do you realize that?” Mr. Kerrey suffered for the remark and was shunned within his party for a while, but didn’t retract.

In her column Ms. Dowd labeled the campaign operation “Hillary Inc.” but Mr. Geffen got closer to the heart of it: It is the Clinton “machine” and it “is going to be very unpleasant and unattractive and effective.”

He’s probably about to find out how true that is.

Mr. Geffen should be braced for a lot of bad personal box office—negative press, searching profiles, strained relations. We’re probably about to see if the Clinton Machine can flatten him. Little doubt it will try. John Dickerson wrote in Slate this week of Bill Clinton’s generously sharing his campaign wisdom: “Your opponent can’t talk when he has your fist in his mouth.” Among some Democratic political professionals this kind of talk is considered tough and knowing, as opposed to, say, startlingly belligerent and crude.

But the outcome of the Geffen-Clinton episode is worthy of watching because it is going to determine whether it is remembered as the moment in the 2008 campaign when it became clear you are allowed to criticize Hillary—or as the moment it became clear you are not.

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Howard Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman and an emerging dark prince among political operatives—he is, in the strange way of Washington, admired by journalists for his ability to mislead them—quickly responded with a challenge: If Mr. Obama is a good man, he’ll renounce Mr. Geffen and give back the money he contributed in his famous Hollywood fund-raiser. This was widely considered a brilliant move. Is it? Now everyone who follows politics even cursorily will have to have an opinion on whether Mr. Obama should apologize, which means they’ll have to know exactly what Mr. Geffen said, which, again, boiled down, is: I’ve known them intimately for almost 20 years, and they’re bad people and bringers of trouble. It’s good for Mrs. Clinton that America is going to spend the weekend discussing this? It’s good that Mr. Geffen’s comments, which focused on the area on which she is most touchy and most vulnerable—the character issue—will be aired over and over again? Mr. Wolfson might have been better off with, “We’re sorry to hear it, as Mrs. Clinton thinks the world of David.”

Mrs. Clinton has never gone after a fellow Democrat quite the way she’s going after Mr. Obama, and it’s an indication of how threatened she is not only by his candidacy but, one suspects, his freshness. He makes her look like yesterday. He makes her look like the old slash-and-burn. I doubted he could do her serious damage. Now I wonder.

What Mrs. Clinton is trying to establish is this: to criticize her—to speak of her critically as a human being, as a person with a record and a history and a style and attitudes—is, ipso facto, to be dirty, and low, and destructive. To air and raise questions about who she is, how she operates, and what can be inferred from her past actions is by definition an unjust act.

But Americans have always—always—looked at and judged the character and personality of their candidates for president. And they have been right to do so. It mattered that Lincoln was Honest Abe, Washington had no personal lust for power, that FDR was an optimist and a manipulator, that Adams was a man of rectitude and no small amount of stubbornness. These facts, these aspects of their nature, had policy implications and leadership implications. They couldn’t be more pertinent. They still are.

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At the Democratic forum in Carson City, Nev., on Tuesday, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Mrs. Clinton if Mr. Obama should renounce Mr. Geffen’s remarks. She answered, “I want to run a positive campaign” and referred to “the politics of personal destruction.” Every time she gets in a spot, she pulls that one out. And for good reason: It has always worked. It works because it confuses people. Is this the boys beating up the girl? Are they sticking her pigtails in the ink well? Is Geffen mean? If Obama is nice, shouldn’t he make sure everyone is nice?

It’s not so much a diversion as a non sequitur. Mrs. Clinton is like the little girl who steals the boy next door’s candy and hits him on the head with a hammer. He runs, “Mommy, she stole my Snickers and hit me on the head!” She turns to the mother, hammer in hand, and gestures at the boy. “This . . . is the politics of personal destruction.”

As I say, it’s always worked in the past. The question is, will it work in the future? One senses one thing that is new.

ListeningIn the Nevada forum Mrs. Clinton had a hard act to follow when she came on after Sen. Chris Dodd, who spoke with energy and concentration, and whose look is striking, sort of Old American Ethnic in a Brooks Brothers suit. He’s like a cardinal with his thick white hair and furious eyebrows. He hit the crowd’s erogenous zones on Iraq, and took a hard shot at Mrs. Clinton: “Why is it so hard to say you’re sorry?”

Mrs. Clinton came out after him, and amid the Geffen flap, so it’s not surprising that she was a little off her game. She spoke the way she speaks—”renew the promise of America . . . give people the services and support they need . . . hardworking families”—but the flat voice seemed flatter, more grating. She seemed diminished by the fact that the event hadn’t been built around her, didn’t star her, wasn’t arranged by her. There were other people there, other candidates on the stage, and she looked like she was in a contest for a change.

Usually Mrs. Clinton is a tough little tank, but on Tuesday she seemed less large, less formidable. If only for a moment, less inevitable.