Denver, August 27
Hillary Clinton gave a great speech last night, full of fire and feeling. She talked about all those "left out and left behind" by the Bush Administration–working people struggling to stay afloat, veterans, single mothers, people without healthcare. She talked about the need to end the war in Iraq, about education, renewable energy and the need to defend civil rights, labor rights, women’s rights, gay rights. She spoke movingly of the seventy-two-year struggle for women’s suffrage, a cause handed down the generations (August 26 was Women’s Equality Day, the anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment). Often criticized as stiff and starchy, to say nothing of sartorially challenged, she even poked gentle fun at herself and her staff–"my sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits." (Last night’s was a vivid orange, which the glaring lights of the Pepsi Center gave a pinkish cream-of-tomato-soup tinge.)
As I said, it was a great speech–and she not only gave it everything she had, she looked energized, confident and happy doing so. But the most important thing about it was that she called herself "a proud supporter of Barack Obama." In the very first sentence. These were the words people needed to hear–the crowd went wild, perhaps with relief. (I was pretty nervous myself about whether she would convey real enthusiasm.) Just to make sure everyone got the point, she made it again and again. She praised Obama for building his campaign "on a fundamental belief that change in this country must start from the ground up, not the top down." In an inspired piece of oratory bound to resonate with the many black women in the audience, she evoked Harriet Tubman’s fearless determination ("If you hear the dogs, keep going, if you see the torches in the woods, keep going…keep going…don’t ever stop") and segued to the need to "get going by electing Barack Obama." She asked her followers, a little plaintively, "Were you in this campaign just for me?"
That is the question.
The Hillary die-hards have been the uncrowned stars of the convention, avidly sought out for interviews and photo ops. It’s as if the media cannot let go of their obsession with her, and with the Clinton-Obama rivalry narrative that was such a draw for them. We’ve heard about the die-hards’ anger, their disappointment, their sorrow, their grievance, their need to mourn and find "closure," their fears of women’s progress stalled forever. Susan Faludi just wrote one such piece for the New York Times. The paranoid fantasies of a small subset of these women have gotten respectful, if bemused, attention: the DNC sabotaged Hillary. The media–for which Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi are responsible–sabotaged Hillary. The primary rules sabotaged Hillary–after all, if the primary rules had been different, Hillary might have won, so actually she did win. Besides, the point of the process was to choose the most electable candidate, and clearly that was… Hillary! As I write, the wrangling is still going on about the roll call–will Hillary delegates be allowed to cast a first ballot for her?
Can Clinton bring her base to Obama? "Well," said the white woman sitting next to me, who had waved her Hillary sign throughout the speech, "I may actually vote for him now, and I wouldn’t before." "Oh, it was a wonderful speech," said a 70-something woman festooned with Hillary-themed jewelry and sporting a Hillary hat. "Yes, it will bring the party together. Yes, I’m voting for Obama. She’s a great woman, and I trust her judgment." I ran into Donna Edwards, the newly elected progressive Congresswoman from Maryland and longtime Obama supporter, being interviewed by GRIT TV’s Laura Flanders. Laura was skeptical of the speech–she thought Clinton should have praised Obama more as a person. Edwards thought the speech was fine. "She humanized why Democrats need to make this change. She struck those chords."
On the other hand, a Clinton supporter from Asheville, North Carolina, wearing a T-shirt that read Love Fun Inspiration was more equivocal. A John Edwards supporter who moved to Clinton "because of Chris Matthews," she told me that her 72-year-old mother and her mother’s best friend were voting for McCain "because they’re mad at the media and the DNC." She herself is on the fence–the roll call vote is a biggie for her. "We’ll see what the next two months bring. I’ll either not vote or vote for Obama."
I was an Obama supporter in the primary, but I can relate to the disappointment many feel at Clinton’s defeat, including women who are friends of mine. You would never know it from reading The Nation, but Clinton was and is beloved by many progressive women–women in the labor movement, for example. It is sad to come so close and still lose. But it is sadder when a whole social movement is reduced to one single thing and when not winning that one thing makes you walk away, or even trash the larger cause. A woman President would be an important symbol, but more important is the substance it would represent: the unstoppable progress of women toward full equality. That progress can continue under President Obama, too–in fact, it can become richer and more complex by strengthening ties to the young women and women of color who are in his base. Under a President McCain the momentum will shift into reverse–with a Supreme Court already stacked with Bush conservatives poised to turn hard right and set women back for decades.
Sisters, I am humbly reaching out. I am feeling your pain. But sometimes, as my grandmother used to say, you have to rise above. The stakes are too high to let disappointment and, yes, I’ll say it, pride, carry the day. Because if you do that, McCain will win. If you believe in women and women’s rights–to reproductive freedom, healthcare, decent jobs, education and all the other things we need so we can flourish–you will listen to Hillary and work as hard for Obama as you would have done for her. You made her your leader. It’s time to follow her lead.