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Critic's notebook: Hillary Clinton's concession speech

June 7, 2008 |  2:10 pm

Hillary Rodham Clinton made her last appearance as a presidential candidate -– for the time being -- when she conceded the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama on Saturday morning in Washington. Speaking from a low stage in the light-filled, colonnaded atrium of the National Building Museum with the crowd arrayed before her and, as has become the custom, behind her, she seemed to be floating in a sea of love.

She was late to the event, as to the concession. Her delay in acknowledging Obama as the presumptive candidate -– expected on the night of the last primaries -- kept eyes, cameras and cable news commentary unusually focused upon her. And as concession speeches go, it was something of a celebration and a self-celebration. It was both a private moment -- a thank you to the people who supported her campaign, and clearly still do -– and a political event, with ramifications for Obama, the Democratic Party and herself. Her speech contained a resounding endorsement of her former opponent (six minutes in, it was inevitably noted, but she circled back to it at the end), a reminder of what she had accomplished and a list of work to be done. She was centered and gracious and impossible to lampoon.

As with her opponent, the symbolic import of her candidacy is undeniable. The first presidential contest in which neither of the two front-runners was a white male, Clinton v. Obama was bound to excite
passions, positive and negative. Whether it made a difference in the primaries, Clinton was subject throughout her campaign to gender-based ridicule that would have cost people their jobs had the point been race or religion. (“Many of the most prominent people on TV behaved like middle schoolers,” party chairman Howard Dean told the New York Times.) Within the popular culture that helps define and in some ways contain the political culture, sex is the last arena where people are allowed, even encouraged, to act like pigs.

Chris Matthews' contention during MSNBC coverage of the New Hampshire primary that "the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around"; Mike Barnicle's description of her (on MSNBC's “Morning Joe”) as "looking like everyone's first wife standing outside a probate court"; William Kristol's statement on “Fox News Sunday” that "white women are a problem, that's ... you know, we all live with that"; and Tucker Carlson's, on MSNBC's “Tucker,” that “when she comes on television I involuntarily cross my legs” -- these are all lines that might be delivered on situation comedies without comment. Indeed, it's the sort of thing you hear on television every day.

And yet television has also painted the future. “Could a woman really serve as commander in chief?” Clinton asked Saturday morning. “Well, I think we answered that one.” But the fact that she was the presumptive nominee even before primary season began means we were already prepared for the possibility. Just as a long line of black presidents on big screens and small makes the actual election of an African American seem inevitable -- indeed, it may be imminent -- so does the fictional depiction of strong women in what were once exclusively male roles signal a real-world sea change: I thought of Clinton recently while reviewing a new cop show, “In Plain Sight,” starring Mary McCormack as a federal marshal, one of a host of easy-to-believe tough women the media now unapologetically offers, from vampire-slaying Buffy to Mary McDonnell as the president of all humanity on “Battlestar Galactica.” In dreams begin possibilities: A Madam President is only a matter of time.

-- Robert Lloyd

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