WASHINGTON -- Was it the tears in the New Hampshire coffee shop? Whenever there is a political upset, everyone looks for the unscripted incident, the I-paid-for-this-microphone moment that can account for it. Hillary Clinton's improbable victory in New Hampshire is being widely attributed to her rare display of emotion when asked how she was holding up. This "Hillary cried, Obama died" story line is satisfying, but it overlooks an earlier moment played to a national television audience of 9 million that was even more revealing.
It showed a side of Barack Obama not seen before or since. And it wasn't pretty. Asked in the Saturday Democratic debate about her dearth of "likability," Clinton offered an answer both artful and sweet -- first, demurely saying her feelings were hurt and mock-heroically adding that she would try to carry on regardless, then generously conceding that Obama is very likable and "I don't think I'm that bad."
At which point, Obama, yielding to some inexplicable impulse, gave the other memorable unscripted moment of the New Hampshire campaign -- the gratuitous self-indicting aside: "You're likable enough, Hillary." He said it looking down and with not a smile but a smirk.
Rising rock star puts down struggling diva -- an unkind cut, deeply ungracious, almost cruel, from a candidate who had the country in a swoon over his campaign of grace and uplift. The media gave that moment little play, but millions saw it live, and I could surely not have been the only one who found it jarring.
It is fitting that New Hampshire should have turned on a tear or an aside. The Democratic primary campaign has been breathtakingly empty. What passes for substance is an absurd contest of hopeful change (Obama) vs. experienced change (Clinton) vs. angry change (John Edwards playing Hugo Chavez in English).
One does not have to be sympathetic to the Clintons to understand their bewilderment at Obama's pre-New Hampshire canonization. The man comes from nowhere with a track record as thin as Chauncey Gardiner's. Yet, as Bill Clinton correctly, if clumsily, complained, Obama gets a free pass from the press.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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