I asked Clinton about the troubling pattern of her supporters—in addition to Johnson, there was Billy Shaheen, her erstwhile New Hampshire co-chairman, who suggested that Obama would have to answer whether he’d ever sold drugs, and also Bob Kerrey, who said Obama had attended a “secular madrassa”—launching racially freighted interjections. “Well, it’s been a relatively few instances that I’m aware of,” Clinton responded. “With respect to people we have any control over, we took immediate action. With respect to people we don’t have control over, they both apologized and did so in a timely manner.” I noted that in Michigan, with only Clinton’s name on the ballot, 70 percent of black voters had pulled the lever for “uncommitted” instead of her. Given her and her husband’s storied bond with African-Americans, I wondered if that stung.
“No, it doesn’t, it doesn’t at all,” she said. Clinton added that she understood why many blacks would choose Obama, given the historic nature of his candidacy. “A lot of people who might not vote for me in a primary will not have the conflict going forward in the general election that they have today. And I guess my strong message to African-American voters is one I think they know and they know I know, which is that it’s okay.”
“I really believed I had to prove in this race… that a woman could be commander-in-chief,” says Clinton, who calls this “a fundamental miscalculation.”
Clinton’s supine posture when it comes to the black vote is a curious thing—a sign of either enormous grace or devious calculation. Dick Morris has suggested that the Clintons have sought to hang Obama’s blackness around his neck in order to “trigger the white backlash Senator Clinton needs to win.” Other operatives agree. “There’s no question the Clinton people are playing on race intentionally,” says a Democratic consultant, unaffiliated with Clinton or Obama, who has run more than one presidential campaign. “They know exactly what they’re doing. They’ll do anything to win. It’s hurting both campaigns, but it hurts Obama more. Is America ready for a black president? Some voters are, some voters aren’t. But even the ones who are look at this thing and think, ‘Jesus, I don’t want to see a general election conducted on these terms. I don’t wanna see our nominee get beat up like this. If this is what it’s like when it’s just Democrats, imagine what will happen when Republicans go to work on him. Why do we want to go through that? I’ll just stick with the safe choice.’ ”
On the flight out to Las Vegas, I happened to catch, on my seat-back TV, an interview Clinton had given to Access Hollywood in which she remarked, “They say Ginger Rogers had to do all the same moves as Fred Astaire, except that she had to do them backwards and in heels. Well, that’s kind of how I feel sometimes, too.” Later, I asked Clinton how this squared with her assertion that she didn’t want gender to be injected into the campaign. “It’s part of the background music everywhere,” she answered. “People are going to ask you about it, and it would be foolish to say, well, it’s not worth talking about.” Clinton went on, “I don’t have a claim on anybody’s vote. I’m not even entitled to my mother’s vote.”
Actually, I said, I think you are entitled to that.
“Not according to my mother! She was one of the ones I had to get over the commander-in-chief hurdle for!”
It’s often said that Clinton is much warmer and more spontaneous in private than in public, which is true. Also that she has improved greatly as a campaigner—though even now, her performances from stop to stop on the campaign trail are markedly uneven. But the one consistent element of Clinton on the stump is an unrepentant wonkiness. At a church event in Compton, California, for instance, she discoursed with great fervor on how “green-collar jobs” installing solar panels could be a boon to the inner city. As we sat together at Abyssinian, Clinton still bundled up in the black down coat she’d been wearing outside with Butts, I reminded her of her invocation of Mario Cuomo’s dictum that “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.” For Hillary, however, the distinction seemed not to apply: In both campaigning and governing, prose is all she knows.
“I think that’s a fair observation,” Clinton said. “Part of it is just who I am, what I’m comfortable with, how I think I best communicate with people … Benjamin Franklin once said, ‘Well-done is better than well-said.’ I’m kind of a well-done person.”
Does she envy Obama his capacity for soaring rhetoric?
“No, I don’t, I don’t envy,” she said sharply. “Maybe it’s because of the family I grew up in, maybe it’s because of my faith tradition. Methodists are very, uh, methodical people”—she laughed—“but I judge on what people do. I can get moved and carried away by a great speech like anybody else, and I often have ... Words can move us, words can motivate us, words can create movements, all that. But people’s lives don’t change just with words.”