This feature article appears in the December 2007/January 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
“I-O-W-A: Hillary Clinton all the way!”
A group of volunteers drummed on empty plastic buckets and chanted outside a converted barn at the Johnson County Fairgrounds in Iowa City, where nearly 2,000 Democrats gathered on an atypically muggy day in early October to feast on barbeque sandwiches and homemade desserts and hear several leading Democratic candidates speak.
As the night set in, one energetic young male volunteer with bushy brown hair held a white poster board with “Hillary-McGovern” painted in blue and red, in honor of the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate and antiwar icon who moments ago had endorsed the former first lady.
Introducing her, George McGovern recalled when Hillary helped organize in Texas for his failed campaign, joining her then-boyfriend Bill, whose long slovenly hair made him resemble a buffalo. As great a president as her brilliant husband made, McGovern predicted, Hillary would be even greater.
“I hope to live long enough to see a black president in the White House,” McGovern said in reference to Clinton’s Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama. “But we have an old rule and courtesy in the United States: ‘ladies first.’”
The message resonated with the audience. “I supported Hillary long before there were any candidates,” explained Iowa City Democrat Dana McMahon, after McGovern and Clinton spoke. “The very first reason, years ago, was because she is a woman. I think it’s time.”
Going into the presidential race, political observers had predicted that Hillary Clinton would have to portray herself as a female politician in the mold of “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher if she were to convince voters that she could be commander in chief during a time of war.
However, as the campaign has progressed, Clinton has become more eager to play up her feminine side. The shift not only tells us how she plans to run for president, but may also provide insight into how she could transform the role of America’s top executive by turning her presidency into a continuation of her time as first lady.
CLINTON RARELY LETS A CAMPAIGN APPEARANCE go by without saying, “Of course, I am thrilled at the prospect that I could be the first woman president elected in the United States of America,” as she phrased it at the barbeque (sometimes she is “very excited” rather than “thrilled”). Lest anybody accuse her of demanding affirmative action for presidential candidates, she offers the addendum: “I’m not running because I’m a woman. I’m running because I think I’m the most qualified to do the job.”
After making such a statement, she typically speaks of “two groups of people” who come to her campaign events. One group is women in their 90s, who approach her after she speaks to say “I was born before women could vote, and I’m going to live long enough to see a woman in the White House.”
When Clinton spoke at the Service Employees International Union Political Action Conference in September, the number of women in their 90s who said this to her was plural, but in stump speeches a few weeks later, the story usually centered around one 95-year-old woman. At a speech in Anamosa, Iowa, during that stretch, however, she claimed to have been approached by three women in their 90s at her previous event that very morning. As of this writing, no actual 95-year-old woman has surfaced in news accounts to buttress Clinton’s tale.
Families also come to see Clinton, and when parents notice her approaching, Clinton claims they point and tell their children, “See honey, you can be anything you want to be.” Lacking Ronald Reagan’s natural sunny disposition, Clinton’s way of exuding optimism about America is to tie the nation’s potential for greatness to her ability to realize her own narcissistic ambitions. “I want us to say about America, ‘See, we can be anything we want to be again,’” she said in Anamosa.
During one week in October celebrating “Women Changing America,” Clinton did an appearance on ABC’s The View, a lunch speech to the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee, and stopped by a daylong fundraising event that attracted more than 1,000 women supporters to Washington, D.C. and pulled in more than $1.5 million, according to the campaign. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) revved up the crowd for Clinton that afternoon inside the Capital Hilton ballroom that was packed with women in “Hillary” baseball caps. “Suit up, because we’ve got the biggest task any of us could find,” Mikulski shouted, referring to Clinton’s chance to become the first female president. “We are about to make history.”
There are several reasons why Clinton’s gender has become a major factor in her campaign’s political calculations. Partially, it is an attempt to motivate women voters, who make up 65 percent of the audience at her campaign events, according to Mark Penn, her chief strategist. “Women are and will be a powerful force in American politics this presidential election,” Penn wrote in an October strategy memo. “They were the critical swing voters in the last three elections, and they promise to again play a pivotal role in this one.” He also claimed that the campaign’s internal polls show that 94 percent of young women would be more likely to turn out if a woman nominee were on the ballot.
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