WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton's "surprising" win over Barack Obama in the nation's first primary -- in defiance of what polls had predicted and political prognosticators had projected -- has had pundits puzzled.
It must have been the tears, goes the conventional wisdom. She choked up and women raced to the rescue, voting for Clinton over Obama 46 percent to 34 percent. But were they real tears?
They were real to the extent they were there at all. What Americans witnessed wasn't the studied tear rolling all the way to the jaw line, an image of emotion perfected by Hillary's husband. It was more a catch in the throat and the hint of tears welling behind eyes that betrayed a flagging spirit.
Women recognized it right away -- a mixture of fatigue and vulnerability. "It was the first time I've ever thought she was someone I'd like to have a glass of wine with," said a female friend of mine, who is no Clinton fan.
That sentence alone was more predictive than any poll of what was about to happen. When a woman says she's ready to pour wine with another woman, she means all previous misunderstandings are forgiven. Symbolically, it's assent to the question, "Can we talk?" and recognition of an ancient
consensus: Girls stick together when boys gang up.
But let's get something straight: Clinton wasn't emotional because she cares deeply about the country. She was near tears because she cares deeply about becoming the first woman president.
Thwarted ambition is the politician's waterboard.
Hillary's human moment was sparked when a woman at a Portsmouth, N.H., event asked a personal question: "How do you do it? I mean, as a woman, I know how hard it is to get out of the house and get ready. Who does your hair?"
Clinton laughed and said she gets help with her hair most days. Then came the emotion as she segued into her deeply held conviction that she is the only person who can save this country.
"I couldn't do it if I didn't passionately believe it was the right thing to do. I have so many opportunities from this country, I just don't want to see us fall backwards."
What she meant, of course, was that she doesn't want to see herself fall backward. That subtext was clear as she
"You know, this is very personal for me. It's not political. ... I see what's happening. ... It's about our country. It's about our kids' futures.
And it's really about all of us together."
Well, yes and no. It's about those things, but it's mostly about Hillary and Bill, who cut their deal and sealed their fates long ago. Bill had his turn at the presidency and now it is hers. We're talking destiny here.
Hillary has paid hers and then some. She endured the humiliation of Bill's serial philandering and supported his career, while nursing the knowledge that she was the smarter one, if not as charming.
For this moment, she has bided her time and bitten her lip.
There are lots of ways to be married and it's no one's concern how couples manage their own in private. But in public, the Clintons' fate is also our nation's. Their marital vows included a blueprint for leading the country, first as a "two-fer" and later with the former president slated to star as "first laddie."
Then along came that upstart Obama -- from Hillary's hometown of Chicago, of all places -- and African-American, too. How does a woman tell a black it's not his turn?
No one's face was longer than Bill Clinton's in Iowa as Hillary conceded Obama's victory. Looking aged and depressed, he was a portrait of the optimist miscast as a stoic.
After Hillary's win in New Hampshire, Bill was back to his old boyish self, wiping away fake tears as he thanked voters for their support. The comeback kids were once again on familiar turf, basking in the glow of affirmation, released for a time from the insult of a public that doesn't mirror their own self-regard.
So yes, Hillary's choke was as real as Bill's relief, but both are tied to something bigger than our country's or our kids' future. They're tied to the Clintons' future. The question in defeat is: How do Bill and Hillary live the rest of their lives?
"This is one of the most important elections America's ever faced,"
Hillary said. And she wasn't just whistling Dixie.