In the spring of 1995, I was part of a small press pack that accompanied a wounded Hillary Clinton on her first major international trip as First Lady, to south Asia. She was extremely wary of us at first, but that didn't last very long, as the exotic sights and sounds overwhelmed us all. It was, I suspect, a turning point in Clinton's life. Back home, she had faced dangerous, vitriol-spewing crowds at the end of the health-care battle, but each time she stepped off the big plane with the grand words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA emblazoned on its side, the crowds were huge and adoring. And as she went from place to place, visiting local programs that helped women overcome the vicious prejudices visited upon them by male-dominated cultures, a metamorphosis took place: gradually, she seemed to put the health-care debacle behind her and realize there was other work to be done, if not as co-President, then as First Lady. There were all these women who needed a public voice. One day in Ahmadabad, India, she visited a remarkable economic program for untouchable women who were ragpickers. They sang We Shall Overcome for her in Gujarati, and tears filled her eyes. All us cynics in the press corps went weepy too.
As the trip went on, a funny thing happened. She started to open up to the press. Off the record, of course. She would come back to the press section of the plane, dressed in a sweatshirt, wearing her Coke-bottle eyeglasses, and schmooze. I have a picture of the two of us, heads thrown back, laughing at some long-forgotten joke as we headed home.
All of which came to mind as Clinton experienced a similar metamorphosis in New Hampshire last week—an unclenching that took place under far more difficult circumstances, with the whole world watching her every move. It was a rocky path with an unexpected ending. She made mistakes, said a few things in the heat of battle that she probably regrets. But she also allowed herself some tentative moments of spontaneity—not just her now famous near tears in Portsmouth, but moments of humor and anger and grace as well.
My favorite came in a confrontation with the television talk-show host Chris Matthews during a press conference—a press conference!—in Nashua. Matthews was pushing her on Iraq. How was she different from Barack Obama? Back and forth it went, Clinton parrying every thrust easily. Finally, Matthews capitulated. "Please, come on the show," he said. Clinton chuckled and said sarcastically, "Well, right!" Then she joked, "I don't know what to do with men who are obsessed with me." And then she went over, gave him a hug, patted his cheek and said, "Christopher ... baby ..." Matthews seemed to melt. He asked her how she was doing. "I'm good!" she replied brightly.
But she wasn't good. She was shell-shocked, reeling from her loss in Iowa and polls that showed her cratering in New Hampshire. The search for some way to counter Obama's easy brilliance, her search for a true public voice, was proving much harder than her discovery of a new mission back in India in 1995. And then it happened, in the oddest possible way. It happened at a listless rally on Monday afternoon in the town of Dover, where her husband had resurrected his cratering campaign in 1992 by declaring, "I'll be there for you until the last dog dies."
With the last dog on life support, Senator Clinton was introduced by a woman named Francine Torge, who said something startling and dreadful: "Some people compare one of the other candidates to John F. Kennedy. But he was assassinated, and Lyndon Baines Johnson was the one who actually [completed Kennedy's work]." That clearly remained in Clinton's mind, because a few hours later, she was tastelessly comparing Obama to Martin Luther King Jr. in an interview with Fox News. King's dream "became a reality," she said, "because we had a President who said we are going to do it and actually got it accomplished."
The specter of Lyndon Johnson, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and all the other dull, disastrous, detail-oriented Democratic politicians of the recent past had haunted her campaign from the start. Earlier that day she had even attacked Obama using Mondale's famous line about Gary Hart, "Where's the beef?" But now she seemed to be shedding her private dismay that she could never be a charismatic politician like Obama or Kennedy, or her husband, and embracing her inner Johnson—at least the can-do policy-wonk version of that notoriously strange President. But she would be Johnson with a twist, with passion and with a specific constituency in mind: all those women who had to juggle jobs, children, careless, selfish men, and menopause—and, all too often, divorce. The working women of America, like the woman who had asked the simple, touching question in Portsmouth that had started her tears flowing: "How do you do it? Who does your hair?"
Those women responded by coming out for her in droves in New Hampshire. They represent a very moving counterforce to the legions of young people Obama has activated across the country. Both Clinton and Obama have a solid base now—and both have a similar problem: trying to reach past that base, especially to the working-class (white) men who may well decide the general election in states like Ohio. Clinton's "beef" may prove the more sturdy product in a party that thinks, as labor leader Andrew Stern once said, that electing a President is College Bowl, but it's really American Idol. Obama may be inspirational, but Clinton is now inspired. "I listened to you," she said at the beginning of her spare, elegant acceptance speech. "And in the process, I found my own voice."
If she is smart—smarter about herself than she has been in the past—she will continue to run her campaign in the open, as she did the last few days in New Hampshire, answering questions from the press and public, allowing her humor (and a bit of anger) to shine. She will, finally, trust her own instincts and stop relying so much on polls and market testing. A big election like this one is won on macrovision, not the microtrends that her strategist Mark Penn keeps touting. And in facing an idealistic opponent, she will remember that she, not her husband, was the one who came up with the famous line "I still believe in a place called Hope."