Image: Hillary Clinton
Stan Honda  /  AFP - Getty Images
Sen. Hillary Clinton campaigns at the 92nd Annual Hopkinton State Fair in Contoocook, N.H., in September.
updated 10/15/2007 10:10:54 PM ET 2007-10-16T02:10:54

This is “Women Changing America” week in Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but I’m not sure she wants to change the way presidential campaigns are conducted. In fact, I think she’s tempted to follow the dismissive rule laid down in 2000 by George W. Bush: the sooner you can retreat into a bubble, the better. Why should male candidates be the only ones allowed to be imperious?

Hillary is so smart, tough, and experienced that it is hard to imagine a voter Q & A session or press “avail” she couldn’t handle. She has made very few mistakes on the trail. Last week in Iowa, according to Rick Sloan of the Machinists, “she handled fastball after fastball” from those always-superbly educated caucus-goers.

But I get the sense that the better her numbers look -- and they are looking very good right now -- the less exposed to the elements she is going to be. In 2000, Bush was careful to be point of stark fear about his media and crowd surroundings; he positively hated unplanned, spontaneous contact with voters he didn’t know, or hadn’t vetted.

Is Hillary becoming the same way? Some people in New Hampshire are wondering out loud -– and saying that her approach is coming off as haughty and, dare they say it, not consistent with the ideals of what used to be called “the feminist movement,” which wasn’t just about acquiring power but about acquiring and using it more humanely.

This week she wasn’t even going to meet with the woman who runs the YWCA in Manchester, N.H., until a female activist in the state urged her to loudly complain to the Clinton’s staff. She did, and Clinton will in fact stop by to chat and pose for a photo op.

‘Hillary’s people are acting just like the men’
No Q & A with the public is planned at that event, and none appears elsewhere on her schedule for other “women’s” events. It’s the attitude that bothers some in the state. “Hillary was recruiting women here early this year on the idea that ‘it’s our time,’” said the activist, who asked to remain anonymous so she could deal with all the campaigns. “But Hillary’s people are acting just like the men. It is all very closed-off and top-down.”

Maybe that is what it takes, but to some women it is ironic.

When Hillary Clinton was in her last year of law school at Yale in the fall of 1972, an Australian pop singer named Helen Reddy topped the American pop charts with a feminist anthem called “I Am Woman.” Musically, it was one of the worst tunes ever recorded. Politically, it remains an unacknowledged theme song of Hillary’s campaign.

(Before posting this piece I contacted a top official of the Clinton campaign to ask whether Hillary might take questions in Manchester. I didn't hear back, so I relied on her emailed schedule, which didn't indicate any. Maybe it's a coincidence, but about 90 minutes after this piece went live, I finally got an reply from the campaign: she will take questions at both Manchester events. She is Woman, Hear Her Roar!)

Politics, said the late Lee Atwater, is a “base game.” He meant that a candidate had no chance unless he (or she) had a loyal, unshakable core of supporters who would “stick” no matter what. For Hillary, it’s the Reddy Women. They comprise much of her operational core and the demographic bull’s eye of the voter cohort she wanted to win.

The Clinton campaign rolled out the “I Am Woman” appeal early this year, before the cameras began to whirr, as they worked to line up endorsements and key backers in states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. The message: Clinton’s campaign would be the history-making capstone of a generational gender crusade for power.

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In New Hampshire, as elsewhere, she courted women in her own image: those who either hold elective office or who have been in the public eye for years as the spouse of a politician. Her Woman to See in Iowa is Christie Vilsack, wife of the former governor; as much as Democrats like the husband, many think the wife is the shrewder politico. In New Hampshire, Hillary’s local hub is in the Shaheen family. The husband, Bill, is a campaign chair, but the real political pants in the family belong to his wife, Jean, who used to be governor and who is now running for U.S. Senate.

Every successful presidential campaign has a cadre of trusted aides drawn from some deep aspect of the candidate’s roots. In JFK’s case, it was the Navy: the PT-109 tie clasps his friends cherished were much more than trinkets, they were talismans. Bill Clinton had Arkansas, George W. Bush had Texas and Yale and his dad’s circle.

Hillary’s is a remarkable network of women that has been deepening in experience, yet still hungry for power on their own. Yes, there are important men in the inner circle –- Bill Clinton being a circle unto himself –- but what impresses me (and intimidates some others) is a line-up of insiders that includes Mandy Grunwald, the veteran media expert; Patty Solis Doyle, the campaign manager, who has emerged as much more than the figurehead some had assumed she would be; Tamara Luzzatto, the tough-as-nails Senate chief of staff; and Teresa Vilmain, a legendary organizer who was lured back into the game for one last go-round in Iowa.

Shrewd -- but not open
I could list a dozen more –- two dozen. They key thing is not only that they are talented and tough, but that they are fiercely loyal to Hillary, and have remained so for years. They are running a shrewd, tough campaign, but an open one? Not on your life.

Perhaps that’s what you need in politics, whether you are a man or woman. But the question you might ask is: what does that attitude mean if and when you make it to the White House?

Maybe it’s not a question a man should ask, so I defer to Concord Monitor columnist Katy Burns. She asked last weekend whether New Hampshire voters should elect someone (like Bush) seemingly “obsessed with control and secrecy.” The question isn’t whether she can win, Burns, wrote. “A better question is, should she win?”

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