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The Hillary we hardly knew

June 18, 2008 |  1:14 am

New York magazine has published a revealing article this week titled "What Hillary Won by Losing the Democratic Nomination." It's by John Heilemann, a lucky journalist who spent much time on the campaign trail with Hillary Rodham Clinton in recent months.

He chronicles from behind the scenes the changes in the candidate and her campaign and the appealing moments of her introspection when Clinton admits to him the fundamental mistakes she made in crafting what a little over a year ago was seen as a surefire gimme nomination victory for the former first lady.

Our thanks to Katie Fretland over at the Swamp for calling the article to our attention. She has a different view of the same article here.

Heilemann's thesis is that contrary to the view of some, Clinton did not damage the Democratic Party's chances of retaking the White House on Nov. 4 nor Barack Obama's odds of beating the Republican nominee, John McCain. She, in fact, made them stronger.

Here's his core point:

"Hillary is today a more resonant, consequential and potent figure than she has ever been before. No longer merely a political persona, she has been elevated to a rarefied plane in our cultural consciousness.

"With her back against the wall, she both found her groove and let loose her raging id, turning herself into a character at once awful and wonderful, confounding and inspiring -- thus enlarging...

...herself to the point where she became iconic.

"She is bigger now than any woman in the country. Certainly, she is bigger than her husband. And although in the end she may wind up being dwarfed by Obama, for the moment she is something he is not: fully, poignantly human."

She admits to Heilemann: "I don’t particularly like the attention. I like the work. I like the sense of forward movement and progress."

From the very beginning of the campaign, even before that January 2007 announcement day, it was Clinton's surprising and even engaging lack of confidence in what Heilemann calls her "political chops" that caused her to rely far too heavily on the ideas of chief strategist Mark Penn, who had guided her 2000 Senate campaign.

Hillary Clinton's strategists resisted showing her human side in favor of projecting strength as a female chief executive

He thought she had to run on her strength and convince the country that a woman, this woman, was strong and rugged enough to be commander-in-chief. Clinton bought into that for too long.

Even before Super Tuesday, by which time she originally was to have had the nomination wrapped up, Clinton admitted to Heilemann "a fundamental miscalculation" that she had focused too much on that feminine strength goal, but she also concluded that she'd had no choice.

Perhaps, in hindsight, some first woman, which happened to be this woman, had to provide that proof to nudge the country's consciousness toward acceptance of a female chief executive someday, even if it wouldn't in the end be this woman.

Others within her circle argued that she should show herself to be more human and involved in human issues, not just policies. Penn's reported response: "Being human is overrated."

Imagine for a moment if Clinton's campaign had worked the retail side of politics in caucus states, let the people in the living rooms see the struggling candidate. She might have finished second instead of third in Iowa. And ridden a tailwind into New Hampshire, where -- remember? -- she "found my voice."

It is a very common struggle within major political campaigns, between the serious policy people who favor profound pronouncements and those who would allow, even encourage, the candidate to show to the curious public the human side that insiders know so well. To work less at convincing the public straight-on and let them see and discover for themselves the likable, human side of the candidate.

The human-siders most often lose in these internal organizational struggles. They are seen as weak.

It's ironic to think that if Hillary Clinton, the politician who got so much better and comfortable as a campaigner as her 17-month struggle unfolded, had allowed the public to see sooner the human, sometimes torn, sometimes uncertain, gritty underdog side that she showed the New York magazine writer, it might very well be Obama encouraging his downhearted supporters these days to unite behind Clinton, the first female candidate to win a major party's presidential nomination.

Too late now.

You can read the entire New York article here. The Ticket recommends it.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Photo Credits: AP / Elise Amendola