February 28, 2008
Mrs. Clinton has lately been taking the pundits’ advice to reinvigorate her candidacy by re-deploying her sensitive side. It worked in New Hampshire, remember? It could work again in Texas and Ohio.
After last week’s debate with Barack Obama, it looked like nurture was overtaking nature. Clinton made some feeble jabs at her opponent (Plagiarism? Please.), but in the end it was she who tried to actualize what Obama has long been talking about: conciliation, negotiation, flexibility — the politics of hope.
"You know," she said in the debate’s closing moments, "no matter what happens in this contest, I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored. You know, whatever happens, we’re going to be fine."
It appeared to many that she was preparing herself and her supporters for a gracious and noble concession on the nomination: no bitter end-game, no end-run with the super-delegates. As the polls showed her base eroding from all sides, she presented herself as someone who was above the fray, someone who would sacrifice her ambition and near-hereditary claim on national leadership for the unity of the party and the good of the country. Reporters from the New York Times commented that for most of the debate, she and Obama were "acting more like running mates than rivals."
But nature came out on Saturday, in response to a flier by the Obama campaign claiming (falsely, it turned out) that she was a free-trade proponent. "Shame on you, Barack Obama!" she shrilly reproached.
Shame on you? Now she sounded like a scolding mom. Hearing this, Chelsea may have had flashbacks to the high-chair and spilled vegetables. You may have had them too; I certainly did.
Over the months, the Democratic race has evolved into a microcosmal clash of the generations, a symbol of what is going on, largely unarticulated, in the country as a whole. The caucuses and primaries threw out all those graying friends of the family, Biden and Dodd and the rest, and what remained was the fundamental: the test of wills between Mom and the Kid.
Oh, and let’s not forget Dad. Bill Clinton’s January remark that Obama’s she-was-wrong/I-was-right taunt on Iraq was "the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen" is just the male version of "Shame on you." These are the familiar cries of frustrated parents everywhere and at every time: How could you do this to us, after all that we’ve done for you? They’re the spontaneous yet stereotypical reactions to rebellious children. Who doesn’t remember returning home from their first semester away at college, full of naïve, idealistic, and derisive opinions on everything, and being laughed away from the dinner table by their offended elders — and maybe berated for plagiarism, too?
The clash of generations has long been played out on the political stage, because politics is a mirror of the culture. Most ironically, it last appeared between the Clintons and the first Bush in 1992: forward versus backward, innovative versus establishment. That the Clintons have ignored frequent reminders by the press that they were then the same age as Obama is now, and that they then employed the same rhetoric of change that he’s employing now, speaks to the overall state of denial among the Baby Boomers: Thinking themselves forever young, they cannot face the inevitability of eclipse, supersession, and eventual discard.
The endorsement of Obama by Ted Kennedy and his nieces Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver was no mere endorsement. It was a symbolic act reaching deep into the American psyche: The torch must again be passed to a new generation of Americans.
In the best families, the children grow up and the parents grow down. There is an alliance, not an alienation, of the generations, a mutual acknowledgment that each has something at stake and something to give. The youth provide vigor and often unthematic hope; the elders provide practical experience tempered by failure and proven by success.
Hope is Obama’s theme; experience is Clinton’s. Neither yet seem to realize that the two themes are not opposites but complements. Melding them would make an unbeatable team.
"We’re going to be fine."