CONCORD, N.H.— Standing in a school gym that smelled of sweat and Lysol, a 58-year-old nurse practitioner named Mary Ann — two words, just Mary Ann, thank you — struggled to get up toward the front of the rope line. But even here in the overflow room, the crowds were intent and five-deep. When she realized she would not be able to see one way or another, she spent some time figuring out how to take a photo while holding her phone above her head. “I can never work this thing,” she said.
Minutes later, Hillary Clinton swooped in, smile enormous and hand waving. Holding the phone up along with the rest of the crowd, Mary Ann got a blurry photo and teared up as Clinton began to talk. It was not a long speech: She explained that she would finish her remarks to the huge crowd in the other room, and then would come back to shake some hands. “It’s real! People are making up their minds,” Clinton said. “They’re thinking, ‘Who can actually be the president to deliver results for the families, the people of all ages, in our country?’ And with your help that’s what we’re going to do starting on Tuesday!” With that, she was gone, and Mary Ann was wiping tears off her face.
I asked Mary Ann why she was supporting Clinton rather than Bernie Sanders, and she started talking about her personal admiration for the former secretary of State and the competence that Clinton exudes. “I like Bernie Sanders,” she said. “But I look at what she has gotten done.” And we talked for a while about the power of seeing a woman so close, again, to becoming president. “That’s an amazing thing,” Mary Ann said.
Her vision of Hillary Clinton was that of Hillary Clinton: Revolutionary. It was a vision of a talented woman finally succeeding where none before had been able to, overcoming a lifetime of obstacles to take a job she deserves. It was a vision that Clinton promoted all weekend. But it was one that got horribly and unnecessarily twisted up in generational and gender politics, courtesy of Clinton’s surrogates.
Exhibit A: The evening before the rally, Gloria Steinem had appeared on Real Time With Bill Maher to talk Clinton up. Then she said that women “get more activist as they grow older. And when you’re younger, you think, Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.” She later put out an epic non-apology apology for implying that Bernie’s many young female supporters should show more deference to their female elders and less to their male peers. “In a case of talk-show Interruptus, I misspoke on the Bill Maher show recently, and apologize for what’s been misinterpreted as implying young women aren’t serious in their politics,” she posted on Facebook. “Whether they gravitate to Bernie or Hillary, young women are activist and feminist in greater numbers than ever before.”
Exhibit B: A few minutes after Clinton’s drive-by in the overflow gymnasium, Madeleine Albright took the stage in the main room. She started off by thanking Clinton for helping to make her the first female secretary of State. “I am somewhat prejudiced about all this, because I know I wouldn’t be secretary of State if it hadn’t been for Hillary,” Albright said. “There’s never been anybody that is better at understanding things and ready to go than Hillary.” She moved on to the feminist case. “People are talking about revolution,” Albright said. “What kind of revolution would it be to have the first woman president of the United States?” At this, the crowd erupted into chants and cheers of “Madam President! Madam President!”
Then things went awry. “A lot of you women think it’s been done,” Albright said. “It’s not done, you have to help. Hillary Clinton will always be there for you.” Uh-oh. “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” The crowd burst into the loudest-yet cheers, and Clinton smiled and took a big sip of a drink she had been nursing to help and soothe her frayed vocal cords. Damage done.
The next morning, Clinton did some cleanup on the Sunday shows. “Madeleine has been saying this for many, many years,” she said on Meet the Press, referring to the “special place in hell” line. (And it is true: It’s on a goddamn Starbucks cup.) “She believes it firmly, in part because she knows what a struggle it has been, and she understands the struggle is not over.” Clinton added, “Good grief, we’re getting offended by everything these days. People can’t say anything without offending somebody.”
Exhibit C: On Sunday, Bill Clinton went off on both Bernie Sanders and his supporters, according to a New York Times story about a small event Bill held while Hillary visited Flint, Michigan. Bill cited the rantings of the Bernie Bros, calling them “vicious trolling and attacks that are literally too profane often, not to mention sexist, to repeat.” He said that Sanders argues that anyone who does not support him “is a tool of the establishment.” He called his worldview “hermetically sealed” and his proposals fact-challenged.
The attacks, taken together, boil down to something ugly. Young people — particularly young women — insufficiently appreciate Hillary and do not understand how radical it would be to have a female president of the United States. Bernie’s supporters are sexist and crazy to think that he would be the truly revolutionary candidate. How dare he paint her as an Establishment politician! She has a better chance of driving the country in a progressive direction than he does! Sexism is once again keeping a woman down! I suppose it is understandable that Clinton’s surrogates would harbor those kinds of sentiments. Younger women really do support Bernie over Clinton — by 20 percentage points, according to one USA Today and Rock the Vote poll. In Iowa, young voters supported Bernie by something like six to one.
But Clinton herself has strenuously avoided precisely the kinds of arguments and attacks her surrogates have been making. At the last debate, she addressed her lack of support among young voters head-on: “I hope that I will be able to earn their support,” she said. “They may not support me now, but I support them, and we’ll work together.” And this weekend, she stuck to her talking points. She stumped for equal pay for women’s work, and for protecting the Department of Veterans Affairs. She quoted Maya Angelou. She asked the crowd in Concord, “Will we rise? Will we rise together?”
That message will not be enough to win Hillary New Hampshire, and it might never win over young voters either. But it resonated with people like Mary Ann, who continued to cry as she listened to Clinton’s speech, given how revolutionary Clinton’s prospect of winning the presidency felt to her. And if and when Hillary wins, it will be a a glass-shattering, epochal moment after years and years of sexist attacks, not to mention a historic victory for all liberals — a fact that our familiarity with Hillary and her insider bona fides and her surrogates’ ham-handed arguments have clouded.
“I just cannot believe there’s going to be a woman president,” Mary Ann said. “That’s something I did not think I would see in my lifetime.”