By the eve of the New Hampshire primary last week, the candidates for President, especially the ones with a realistic shot at their party’s nomination, were tired—very, very tired. They had been campaigning hard for a year or more, flat out for months, nearly around the clock for weeks. The election itself, incredibly, was still ten months away. There had been no break after the Iowa caucuses. How could there be, with only four full days left until the New Hampshire voting? The schedule—the anarchic product of hundreds of uncoördinated, self-interested maneuvers by state legislatures, party committees, and campaign high commands, combining the worst features of languid lengthening and frenetic foreshortening—is insane. And brutal. What keeps the candidates going (besides a sincere desire to “give back”) is the adrenaline in their veins, the addicting intensity of the experience, and the glitter of the prize.
Extreme fatigue and undiluted adrenaline make a powerful cocktail. The wonder is that none of these people have yet been carted off to the funny farm. Last week, small cracks began to appear in the façade of mastery that all candidates strive to maintain. Even Senator Barack Obama, the youngest and fittest of the bunch, was starting to show the strain. In Rochester, on Monday evening, the (then, briefly) Democratic front-runner addressed an overflow crowd packed into one of the intimate, theatre-like meeting halls that New Hampshire towns specialize in preserving. He was getting into the heart of his stump speech, surfing waves of applause. “In less than twenty-four hours, you can do what the cynics said could not be done,” he orated. “We can come together, Democrats, Independents, and, yes, some Republicans, and proclaim that we are one nation, we are one people, and the time has changed for—” He stopped abruptly and mused, as if breaking the fourth wall, “That’s the second time I’ve done this today.” Then, switching immediately back into character, he picked up where he had left off: “The time for change has come!”
A somewhat more widely publicized moment of human ordinariness had occurred that morning, in Portsmouth, where Senator Hillary Clinton, attended by a scrum of cameramen and reporters, was sitting at a coffee-shop table with a group of “undecided voters,” mostly middle-aged and female. One of them asked her how she manages it—how she keeps “upbeat” and “wonderful”—and added, “Who does your hair?”
“Well, luckily, on special days I do have help,” Clinton said. Then her eyes welled up, and she took a deep breath.
It’s not easy. It’s not easy. And I couldn’t do it if I just didn’t, you know, passionately believe it was the right thing to do. You know, I have so many opportunities from this country. I just don’t want to see us fall backwards. You know, this is very personal for me. It’s not just political. It’s not just public. I see what’s happening. We have to reverse it.
By this point her voice had softened, taking on a never-before-heard quality of slightly mournful tenderness:
Some of us just put ourselves out there and do this against some pretty difficult odds. And we do it, each one of us, because we care about our country.
But some of us are right and some of us are wrong. Some of us are ready and some of us are not. Some of us know what we will do on Day One and some of us haven’t really thought that through enough. . . .
So, as tired as I am—and I am—and as difficult as it is to kind of keep up what I try to do on the road, like occasionally exercise and try to eat right, it’s tough when the easiest food is pizza. I just believe so strongly in who we are as a nation.
The media frenzy that followed had to be seen to be believed—and it was seen, everywhere in New Hampshire, and everywhere else in the country, where a television set was tuned to cable news. A common first instinct was to treat the episode as a ploy, a calculated effort to “humanize” the candidate—an interpretation that depended heavily on its having been somehow staged or faked. But the authenticity of Clinton’s emotion was apparent to anyone who took the time to study the many replays with an open mind, a category that did not include the hardest-hearted hard core of conservative commentators. On Fox News, William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard and the Times’ newest Op-Ed columnist, said flatly, “She pretended to cry.” Even Brit Hume was taken aback. “You think she pretended?” “Yes,” Kristol replied. Hume: “I don’t.”
Most of the (male) press quickly came around to Hume’s view, but even then the general assumption was that the incident would further damage Clinton’s chances. (She was well behind in New Hampshire polls, though this had been true for less than two days.) Among grizzled veterans, the memory of 1972 was still vivid: if Senator Edmund Muskie, of neighboring Maine, had crumpled his ticket to the nomination by appearing outside the Manchester Union Leader building with wet cheeks (whether from tears or snow was never determined), how could Hillary survive? Much has changed since then, of course. Men, even the most macho of them, are permitted to shed a tear. The ranks of post-1972 male political weepers and misters include Richard Nixon, Bob Dole, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, both Bushes, and the other Clinton; Mitt Romney, a leading Republican contender this year, cried three times last month alone. (The cross-party hugfest at halftime of the back-to-back Republican and Democratic debates on ABC was another indicator of emotional climate change.) But things were assumed to be different for women. Tom Lutz, in “Crying,” his erudite 1999 study of “The Natural and Cultural History of Tears,” suggests a parallel with poll-driven political centrism: “The men who cry prove that they are not too manly; the women who maintain stoic control of their emotions prove that they are not too ‘feminine.’ ” And: “Hillary Clinton has been routinely condemned by some of her critics for being too masculine, too hard and cold, but one can imagine the criticism that would rain down on her if she were to cry on camera.” If Hillary didn’t quite cry, she came close. And, sure enough, the criticism rained down. But so did the votes.
And what, one might ask, about “the issues”? The Democratic contest this year is both more substantive and more superficial than the Republican. The Web sites of Clinton, Obama, and John Edwards fairly groan with detailed, often far-reaching proposals for “change”—that magic word!—in health care, the environment, foreign policy, and more. But, because these proposals resemble nothing so much as one another, the attention of the press and the public tends to gravitate toward dramas of personality. The results out of Iowa and New Hampshire guarantee a spirited fight at least through the twenty-two-state “Tsunami Tuesday” primaries next month. We will likely see many more tears before it’s all over. But in politics, as in life, fate is fickle. Just a few months ago, why was Hillary Clinton being dissed and dismissed? For laughing.