Michael Winship: Tears for fears
Last Thursday, on the morning of the Iowa caucuses, ABC News' political blog, "The Note," with the slightest tongue in cheek, sought to bring pundits and the media to their senses with these opening words: "To the longest, most intense presidential campaign in American history, we introduce a new element... voters.
"Welcome. You've missed so much, but really nothing at all. The party couldn't start without you."
And that's the point. The endless TV ads, commentaries, whistle stops, mailings and endorsement robocalls from the woman who sculpts the cow made out of butter at the Iowa state fair (I'm not kidding) — it's what happens when a citizen steps up to cast his or her ballot — assuming an electronic machine hasn't already cast it for them — that really counts. Literally.
So, after an Obama victory in Iowa set off a nationwide orgy of pronouncements that Hillary Clinton's electoral goose was stuffed and cooked, five days later she won the New Hampshire primary. The final polls from CNN and USA Today had her losing, respectively, by 10 and 13 points.
What happened? Take your pick. Was it Saturday's debate at which Obama and John Edwards were perceived as unfairly piling on Sen. Clinton? Clinton's jettisoning of her standard stump speech for one-on-one questions from the voters? Bill's and Chelsea's campaigning? The unusually warm weather that brought out a higher percentage of seniors? Women, who constituted 57 percent of the New Hampshire voters, going for her by 47 percent?
And maybe it was the tears. She didn't really cry, but when asked by a voter on Monday how she kept going, Sen. Clinton's voice cracked and her eyes welled up. "You know, this is very personal for me," she said. "Some people think elections are a game, lot's of who's up or who's down, (but) it's about our country, it's about our kids' futures, and it's really about all of us together."
Coming from a candidate perceived by many as a dispassionate policy wonk and automaton, her public display of emotion was embraced more than disdained.
Especially in this age of Oprah, Dr. Phil and day care for the inner child, men and women can more readily let their feelings flow. It's not a bad thing. What's more, many of us share the depth of her despair at the downward direction of America.
This is a far — forgive me — cry from 1972, when Democratic U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie was running in the New Hampshire primary and under attack from Nixon dirty-tricksters and the Manchester Union-Leader. The paper's publisher, the rabid William Loeb, embraced a political philosophy somewhere to the right of Vlad the Impaler.
Loeb, who was given to calling the senator names like "Moscow Muskie," published harshly defamatory articles. The last straw was a scurrilous attack on Muskie's wife, Jane, accusing her of public drunkenness and profanity. On a frosty February day, Muskie stood on a platform in front of the Union-Leader and denounced Loeb as "a gutless coward." Muskie seemed so angry and choked up that spectators saw what they thought were tears on his face.
Later, he claimed it was just melting snowflakes. Muskie won the New Hampshire primary but his honest emotions defending his wife helped end his front-runner status. He was perceived as weak and unpresidential.
Muskie was just ahead of his time. Besides, dry-eyed, macho posturing and cynical panic-mongering are part of what got us into our current mess, from 9/11 forward.
In that regard, even though he was conceding defeat Tuesday night, some of the evening's most optimistic words came from Barack Obama. "We will restore our moral standing in the world, and we will never use 9/11 to scare up votes," he said. "9/11 is not a tactic to win votes, but a challenge to unite America."
We've spent too many years in a long political darkness, Obama announced, then declared, "In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope."
It makes for a nice change. Between Obama's buoyant embrace of possibilities and Clinton's newfound, eyes-suffused openness, we may be onto something. Emotional candor in place of paranoia and implacable sword-rattling — what a concept.
Tears for fears. Come November, it's a trade that more and more may be ready and eager to make.
Michael Winship, a native of Canandaigua, is a freelance television writer in Manhattan and president of the Writers Guild of America, East.