On Monday afternoon in Manchester, New Hampshire, I called my executive producer in New York and said that we needed to pencil in more time than we had allotted for Andrea Mitchell's report on the Clinton campaign. It needed to be enlarged to include a 48-second sound bite of Hillary Clinton at a roundtable, answering a question about the campaign. She was tired, and she was emotional. She did what any of us would have, and have done at times: She briefly lost control of her emotions. At that very moment, while he was miles away and unaware of it, Barack Obama started to lose control of what we had been told was a commanding lead in New Hampshire.
I am a son of New England — my father is from Framingham, Mass., my parents met in college in Maine, and over a lifetime of immersion I came to know the psyche well. The core of the older, native New Hampshire population (albeit in a state that is rapidly changing) is still made up of the sons and daughters of the original Puritans. They take civic responsibility seriously, they take care of those who need it and they take pride in process. In modern political terms, they generally don't like negativity, they reward the downtrodden, they earnestly deliberate over their choice of candidate and they venerate the sturdy among us. In short, they are good people to have in your corner. Hillary Clinton was bloodied in New Hampshire. The people of New Hampshire saw it and didn't like it. They saw assumptions forming and didn't like them. Some felt they were being told what to think: the race was decided, Hillary was desperate and inauthentic. Worst of all — and this was made very clear to me by more than one person — when some in the media quietly doubted that Hillary Clinton's emotions at that roundtable were real (there was quiet snickering about an "acting job" born of an urgent need to seem normal) it was proof to them that cynicism had taken hold of the politics/media realm, and they simply refused to believe that.
Had Bill Clinton not famously coined the title "The Comeback Kid" for himself, his wife would have rightfully claimed it for herself in New Hampshire. That the same state rewarded these two imperfect politicians, in the same way, years apart, is remarkable.
Also remarkable was the apparent transformation of the candidate. The senator who failed to gain the full support of women voters in Iowa was saved by them in New Hampshire. The woman who gave a victory speech after losing in Iowa admitted in her New Hampshire victory speech that what she had really lost was her own voice.
There will be numerous deconstructions over the days to come. Theories about how African-American candidates for office have confounded pollsters (see: Bradley, Wilder, Gant, Jackson) will receive a thorough airing, and deservedly so. We in the media will beat ourselves (and deservedly so) for reaching conclusions before the voters have spoken. A further prediction? Give us a few weeks — we will promptly forget the lessons of this debacle in polling, predictions and primary politics. We will all live to screw up another day, though our performance in New Hampshire will be hard to beat.
It should be noted that virtually everyone got it wrong. The only point of agreement among all the competing campaigns in New Hampshire was that Barack Obama was headed for a double-digit victory, as they told anyone who would listen. I have an e-mail from a Clinton fundraiser who denounced Hillary as a lost cause and threw his support to Obama while the polls were still open on Tuesday. A veteran Clinton loyalist spoke of the campaign in New Hampshire in the past tense on the morning of the election, saying the senator from New York had run smack into "an ideal, ... a movement," called Barack Obama. There was no defeating an ideal, said this completely defeated politico. Not this year, not in New Hampshire.
Obama's Lebanon moment
In his beautiful, soaring concession speech, Obama mentioned the town of Lebanon for a reason. I was with him in Lebanon the day before — and what we saw there was a defining moment in the campaign. It surprised him, his staff members, the Secret Service on board the campaign bus, even the bus driver. We turned the corner toward the event and saw hundreds of people lined up through the streets of the town just to see him, to feel his aura and to later say that they'd done it — they'd been there. There were hundreds more than the venue could hold, and they stood there anyway, and kept coming. Obama, overwhelmed by the overflow crowd, insisted on an outdoor speech before his indoor speech. This much is important, and should be said: Any journalist covering any candidate that day, in that town, would have come away as I did after seeing those people, saying something akin to the old song lyric, "Something's happening here." A colleague of mine contends Obama got caught up in the history he was making. I don't think that's quite fair. The candidate didn't change his message as much as Iowa changed the way we heard it.
That day, I saw people embrace Obama the way people embrace loved ones returning from foreign battlefields. I saw people with small children, brought along simply so their parents could years later tell them, to the point of predictable annoyance, "You were there." Losing in New Hampshire may well make Obama a better candidate. While it's the kind of thing that is always said at times like these by those of us whose names have never appeared on a ballot, I think it might just be true in this case.
What a difference a day made
On the eve of the primary, I attended the last big rally of the Clinton New Hampshire campaign. While large and boisterous enough to distract attention from the decidedly inelegant venue (the indoor tennis courts at the Executive Health and Fitness Center in the shadow of the Manchester airport control tower) it was packed and it was emotional. Our producer spotted tears in Chelsea's eyes. Campaign workers were trying to seem upbeat. A British journalist called the press credential hanging around his neck "a ticket to the last supper." Senator Clinton gave her stump speech, only infused with more emotion: shades of anger, melancholy, frustration and wistfulness. She made a forceful and direct appeal for support, at one point aimed specifically at the women in the audience. Her husband nodded and clapped supportively behind her and shook every hand in the rope line afterwards. I stood several feet away, watching the familiar ballet of incoming hands and thinking of the two years I spent covering his presidency, and how much has changed since then. He's still in the family retail business, where the basic transaction remains the same.
New Hampshire voters, masters of retail politics and educated consumers all, saw what their Iowa counterparts had done days earlier, and chose not to follow the same path. They instead gave their approval to a former POW, and a former first lady. Poles apart in many ways, now joined together in the history of this strange process.
As politicians, John McCain and Hillary Clinton have a lot of mutual respect for each other. They have traveled to Iraq together during a dangerous time in the conflict, and they lived to tell about it. Now they can say the same thing about New Hampshire.
Brian Williams is the Anchor and Managing editor of NBC Nightly News. Comment on this essay by visiting the Daily Nightly blog. Check out the new nightly.msnbc.com Web site.