I think we’ve reached a signal point in the campaign. This is the point where, with Hillary Clinton, either you get it or you don’t. There’s no dodging now. You either understand the problem with her candidacy, or you don’t. You either understand who she is, or not. And if you don’t, after 16 years of watching Clintonian dramas, you probably never will.
That’s what the Bosnia story was about. Her fictions about dodging bullets on the tarmac—and we have to hope they were lies, because if they weren’t, if she thought what she was saying was true, we are in worse trouble than we thought—either confirmed what you already knew (she lies as a matter of strategy, or, as William Safire said in 1996, by nature) or revealed in an unforgettable way (videotape! Smiling girl in pigtails offering flowers!) what you feared (that she lies more than is humanly usual, even politically usual).
But either you get it now or you never will. That’s the importance of the Bosnia tape.
Many in the press get it, to their dismay, and it makes them uncomfortable, for it sours life to have a person whose character you feel you cannot admire play such a large daily role in your work. But I think it’s fair to say of the establishment media at this point that it is well populated by people who feel such a lack of faith in Mrs. Clinton’s words and ways that it amounts to an aversion. They are offended by how she and her staff operate. They try hard to be fair. They constantly have to police themselves.
Not that her staff isn’t policing them too. Mrs. Clinton’s people are heavy-handed in that area, letting producers and correspondents know they’re watching, weighing, may have to take this higher. There’s too much of this in politics, but Hillary’s campaign takes it to a new level.
It’s not only the press. It’s what I get as I walk around New York, which used to be thick with her people. I went to a Hillary fund-raiser at Hunter College about a month ago, paying for a seat in the balcony and being ushered up to fill the more expensive section on the floor, so frantic were they to fill seats.
I sat next to a woman, a New York Democrat who’d been for Hillary from the beginning and still was. She was here. But, she said, “It doesn’t seem to be working.” She shrugged, not like a brokenhearted person but a practical person who’d missed all the signs of something coming. She wasn’t mad at the voters. But she was no longer so taken by the woman who soon took the stage and enacted joy.
The other day a bookseller told me he’d been reading the opinion pages of the papers and noting the anti-Hillary feeling. Two weeks ago he realized he wasn’t for her anymore. It wasn’t one incident, just an accumulation of things. His experience tracks this week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showing Mrs. Clinton’s disapproval numbers have risen to the highest level ever in the campaign, her highest in fact in seven years.
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You’d think she’d pivot back to showing a likable side, chatting with women, weeping, wearing the bright yellows and reds that are thought to appeal to her core following, older women. Well, she’s doing that. Yet at the same time, her campaign reveals new levels of thuggishness, though that’s the wrong word, for thugs are often effective. This is mere heavy-handedness.
On Wednesday a group of Mrs. Clinton’s top donors sent a letter to the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, warning her in language that they no doubt thought subtle but that reflected a kind of incompetent menace, that her statements on the presidential campaign may result in less money for Democratic candidates for the House. Ms. Pelosi had said that in her view the superdelegates should support the presidential candidate who wins the most pledged delegates in state contests. The letter urged her to “clarify” her position, which is “clearly untenable” and “runs counter” to the superdelegates’ right to make “an informed, individual decision” about “who would be the party’s strongest nominee.” The signers, noting their past and huge financial support, suggested that Ms. Pelosi “reflect” on her comments and amend them to reflect “a more open view.”
Barack Obama’s campaign called it inappropriate and said Mrs. Clinton should “reject the insinuation.” But why would she? All she has now is bluster. Her supporters put their threat in a letter, not in a private meeting. By threatening Ms. Pelosi publicly, they robbed her of room to maneuver. She has to defy them or back down. She has always struck me as rather grittier than her chic suits, high heels and unhidden enthusiasm may suggest. We’ll see.
What, really, is Mrs. Clinton doing? She is having the worst case of cognitive dissonance in the history of modern politics. She cannot come up with a credible, realistic path to the nomination. She can’t trace the line from “this moment’s difficulties” to “my triumphant end.” But she cannot admit to herself that she can lose. Because Clintons don’t lose. She can’t figure out how to win, and she can’t accept the idea of not winning. She cannot accept that this nobody from nowhere could have beaten her, quietly and silently, every day. (She cannot accept that she still doesn’t know how he did it!)
She is concussed. But she is a scrapper, a fighter, and she’s doing what she knows how to do: scrap and fight. Only harder. So that she ups the ante every day. She helped Ireland achieve peace. She tried to stop Nafta. She’s been a leader for 35 years. She landed in Bosnia under siege and bravely dodged bullets. It was as if she’d watched the movie “Wag the Dog,” with its fake footage of a terrified refugee woman running frantically from mortar fire, and found it not a cautionary tale about manipulation and politics, but an inspiration.
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What struck me as the best commentary on the Bosnia story came from a poster called GI Joe who wrote in to a news blog: “Actually Mrs. Clinton was too modest. I was there and saw it all. When Mrs. Clinton got off the plane the tarmac came under mortar and machine gun fire. I was blown off my tank and exposed to enemy fire. Mrs. Clinton without regard to her own safety dragged me to safety, jumped on the tank and opened fire, killing 50 of the enemy.” Soon a suicide bomber appeared, but Mrs. Clinton stopped the guards from opening fire. “She talked to the man in his own language and got him [to] surrender. She found that he had suffered terribly as a result of policies of George Bush. She defused the bomb vest herself.” Then she turned to his wounds. “She stopped my bleeding and saved my life. Chelsea donated the blood.”
Made me laugh. It was like the voice of the people answering back. This guy knows that what Mrs. Clinton said is sort of crazy. He seems to know her reputation for untruths. He seemed to be saying, “I get it.”