Time And Tide Wait For No Woman

Jun 13, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

This week OffTheBus is rolling out introductory columns by some of our star contributors, who will now be writing regular dispatches on their "beats." Conference call junkie and press release deconstructionist M.S. Bellows, Jr. is helping us work toward greater political / media transparency from his home in the Pacific Northwest. In his column, "Warranted Wiretaps," he supports his observations and analysis of the campaigns by featuring audio excerpts from press conference calls and candidate speeches and block text from press releases. As a companion resource to Scott's column, OffTheBus is now making full audio of the calls available at a new section titled Listening Post. Not long ago, only full fledged members of the on-the-bus media enjoyed access to this kind of material. They listened and asked the questions and wrote the stories. Now so can you-- anywhere they sell internet! Compare what you hear to what you read-- here and elsewhere -- and then write us your own version of the story! Thanks. --John Tomasic

At a pivotal point in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Rome (like a political party I can think of) is nearing the end of a war against itself -- a destructive civil war that weakens the nation and jeopardizes its ability to prosecute real wars against its true enemies. Two Roman strategists, Brutus and Cassius, meet to discuss tactics. Cassius wants time -- time to think, time to plan, time to rest. Brutus, the better man and the better general, urges action. Brutus says:

There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures.

(Act IV, sc. 3, ll. 218-224)

We can credit Hillary Rodham Clinton with many personal and political gifts: intelligence, tenacity, a sincere and underappreciated personal charm. But mastery of the art of timing is not one of those gifts: her campaign, now painfully "bound in shallows and in miseries," is a textbook example of right things done at wrong times. What distinguishes John McCain and Barack Obama from Hillary Clinton is that they, unlike Clinton, know when to strike; and for that reason, they are not just the people who happened to win the right to carry their parties' banners, but they are the best people to do so.

Clinton's ultimate act of mistiming is, of course, her failure to concede the Democratic nomination to Obama Tuesday night. Even McCain, who benefited tremendously from the drawn-out Democratic primaries and would love to see the rancor extend all the way to a floor battle at the Democratic Convention in August, acknowledged reality that night. In a speech both timed and crafted to appeal to disaffected Clintonistas, praising Clinton and deceptively saying that "pundits and party elders" had chosen Obama, McCain nevertheless began by acknowledging the obvious:

But Clinton (and, apparently, her advisers) couldn't bring herself to see the reality of Obama's accession in time to preserve her relevance. She was introduced Tuesday night by her campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, whose ability to deny the undeniable rivals that of Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf , the Saddam Hussein spokesman who denied that American troops had entered Baghdad even as smoke filled the sky and sirens could be heard in the background.

McAuliffe stirred up the crowd by undercutting Obama's legitimacy, repeating Clinton's selective-math "we won more popular votes" claim and introducing Clinton as "the next President of the United States of America":

Then Clinton took the stage and made things worse. She began by praising Obama in terms and tones usually used by winners to show respect for losers, not vice versa. Listen to her nice, but deeply dismissive, words:

She repeated McAuliffe's inaccurate claim that she had more popular support than Obama:

She rubbed a little extra salt in the wounds of any Floridians and Michiganders who still believe -- incorrectly -- that Obama prevented their votes from counting fully:

She repeated her superdelegate argument that she was more electable than Obama:

She even invoked (and therefore revived) her claim that Obama, unlike she and McCain, is not ready to be Commander in Chief. That attack on a fellow Democrat was the single most destructive act of "kitchen sink" campaigning made by any candidate in this election; it's even starting to appear in McCain campaign commercials attacking Obama; and she renewed it even as he received the nomination:

And instead of asking her supporters to close ranks behind her party's nominee, she tried to keep their allegiance uncertain -- to preserve her ability to use her voters as bargaining chips -- by pretending that Obama and the Democratic Party don't want them respected, heard, or seen:

In other words, Clinton kept up her negative campaigning even after the campaign was over, and so hurt her party and therefore herself.

A person with any sense of timing would, at a minimum, have preserved her relevance by making a gracious concession speech in New York Tuesday night and urging her fans to support the nominee. Enough of them would have stayed loyal that she still could have played a role in helping Obama win their affections, and therefore brokered some kind of good deal for herself.

A person with an even bigger vision -- who really understood how to use timing as a tool -- would have gone further. A visionary person wouldn't merely have acknowledged Obama's victory from a stage in New York; she would have flown to St. Paul. She wouldn't have asked her biggest donors and supporters to come to Baruch College; she would have brought them to the Xcel Energy Center, where the energy was. If she had sent word that "I'll concede and endorse, but I want to do it in person," Obama would have found it near-impossible to say no.

Just imagine it: Clinton's supporters mingling amicably with Obama's supporters in a crowd overflowing for blocks around the auditorium, the images beaming from news helicopters onto every TV demonstrating the power and unity of the Democratic Party. And imagine Clinton herself, literally occupying the stage of history with Obama -- the first woman to compete seriously and on an equal footing with men for the presidency, grasping the hand of the first black to compete seriously and on an equal footing with whites for the presidency. A million blinding camera flashes, and the image of that handshake, or even that hug, would immediately have become an icon of one of America's greatest moments, printed on the front page of every paper and burned indelibly into the memories of a generation. That image -- Clinton and Obama on the national stage, before a huge crowd of both campaigns' supporters, mixing collegially and without enmity, the two fellow-travelers and trailblazers embracing in friendship and mutual respect -- that image would have become an emblem of what the Democratic Party stands for, and what America stands for; just by itself it would have started healing and restoring America's image in the eyes of the world.

But we were denied that unifying, historic image, denied that chance to begin to reconstruct. We did not see two great people, celebrating our nation's unsteady, inexcusably delayed, but inexorable progress toward equal justice. Instead, we listened to a woman who could not bring herself to acknowledge the truth in time, who chose not to seize that moment in history and instead asked for a recess, and for her followers to write and tell her what to do -- and to send more money:

Sadly for her and for us, the speech that might have been the pinnacle of Clinton's career and opened her path forward was, instead, ungracious, impolite, and self-centered -- a clinging to what could have been instead of a leap toward what might become. Clinton just didn't understand the timing: Tuesday night was not the time to tear down, but the time to consolidate her place in history by helping Obama consolidate his own. She missed Obama's tide, not realizing that it also was her own.

Here is an important point: Clinton was not unwilling or unable to say the right things; she just was unwilling or unable to say them at the right time. The morning after her ungraciousness, Clinton spoke at an American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) meeting. There, she finally said at least some of the things she should have said about Obama the night before, praising him and at least hinting that he, not she, was her party's nominee:

Jill Zuckman and Mike Dorning of the Chicago Tribune described Clinton's AIPAC performance as being "almost as if she were auditioning to be his running mate." So her problem wasn't that she didn't know what to say, or couldn't bring herself to say it, but timing: she didn't know when to say it.

As for her "audition" for the vice presidency: her twelve hour delay, her lapse of vision, probably has put Observatory Circle out of her reach, as well. Had she stood on the stage with Obama in St. Paul, taken his hand, and offered him her unqualified, unconditional support, making no demand for a quid pro quo, her behavior during the primaries would instantly have been excused and left behind. Such a visionary, selfless act would have been an utterly unexpected, perception-shattering shock to all those who now see Clinton as a self-interested, triangulating dealmaker. There would have been no need for her to horsetrade to become Obama's running mate; the front-page image of the two of them together in St. Paul, and the seamless, easy blending of their two crowds, would have made a compelling argument on her behalf. There would have been almost irresistible pressure on Obama to turn that photo into a campaign poster for the so-called dream ticket.

But she didn't seize the moment, and by the next day, the Obama camp had leaked word that an Obama-Clinton ticket was "highly unlikely" -- and put the blame on Bill. The night before, Obama's ship was floating high on a single anchor, and might still have had room for Clinton; by the time Clinton finally came to the wharf the next morning, the tide had carried his ship far out to sea, leaving her behind and surrounded by a plain of foul-smelling, low-tide mud -- what Shakespeare called "shallows and miseries." That's what it means to miss your tide.

A small, otherwise unremarkable incident yesterday will give you a sense of what a distance Obama's ship had sailed -- how far Clinton had been left behind -- in fewer than twelve hours:

Obama spoke to AIPAC first thing in the morning. Clinton was scheduled to follow at 11:00. But McCain, aware that the laws of timing required him to respond quickly to Obama's excellent and well-received speech to preserve a spot in the nightly news cycle, announced a press conference call at 11:00 -- the same time as Clinton's speech. So where were many of the nation's political reporters during Clinton's "audition"? On their phones, listening to the sound of the general election. Clinton wasn't the story any more. Like I did, they caught Clinton's speech later -- if they caught it at all -- in grainy, tiny, streaming C-Span video on their laptops.

Clinton convinced many of us that she was prepared to pursue her campaign for weeks or even months longer, even all the way to Denver in August -- and I still believe she was prepared to do so. On Tuesday night, Clinton's supporters were chanting "Denver! Denver! Denver!" and she was suggesting that her "decision" would take days or even weeks to make. A little later, she sent out an email, asking supporters to vote on whether she should continue -- and, like the Michigan ballot, they were given only one box to check: "continue."

And yet she traversed from "I've got months" to "I quit" in the small space of time between Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon. What the hell happened in those 20 hours? Just this: Brutus's tide turned against her -- and it was a full-moon, flood tide, too powerful for even her dogged nature to resist:

All day Tuesday, Obama's campaign released press release after press release announcing superdelegate endorsements. Clinton could only muster one, released late in the day -- and that small glory moment's Mayfly existence was snuffed out, eight minutes later, by Obama's impeccably timed announcement of not one but two superdelegate endorsements from Clinton's most symbolic state, Pennsylvania. Jimmy Carter, the only living Democratic president who hasn't traded away his "elder statesman" status for one last taste of reflected glory, endorsed Obama. The tide was flowing.

Then all three candidates gave their speeches; Obama claimed the prize, McCain announced that the general election had now started -- and another 28 superdelegates, one of them the president of the National Federation of Democratic Women, then came forward to endorse Obama. A flood.

Wednesday morning, Obama announced the formation of his vice-presidential selection committee, headed by a personally and symbolically important woman, John F. Kennedy's daughter Caroline. By doing that, Obama not only won the services of an intelligent and incredibly competent supporter, but sent a message -- that he is his generation's incarnation of the youthful, optimistic energy of Jack and Bobby. And The Huffington Post's Hilary Rosen, another loyalist who frequently defended Clinton on MSNBC's evening news shows, wrote a disillusioned post telling Clinton, "I Am Not a Bargaining Chip, I Am a Democrat" -- a message that was quickly disseminated by the MSM.

Also on Wednesday, the four top Congressional Democrats issued a press release on DNC letterhead titled "On the End of the Presidential Primary Process," saying that "Democrats must now turn our full attention to the general election" and "urging all remaining super delegates [sic] to make their decisions known by Friday." Clinton, astonishingly, asked both her staff and her supporters in Congress not to endorse Obama yet -- and was soundly rebuffed: one of her earliest, strongest and most influential supporters, New York Congressman Charlie Rangel, broke ranks to complain to a reporter that "We pledged to support her to the end. Our problem is not being able to determine when the hell the end is."

Rangel told MSNBC:

[S]he could have been far more generous in terms of being more specific and saying that she wants a Democratic victory. It's not as though there were three or four candidates out there; it was as though she was talking about a candidate for the Democratic Party for president of the United States ... So I don't see what they're talking about in prolonging this. There's nothing to prolong if you're not going to take the fight to the convention floor. And she made it abundantly clear [in a private phone call], one, she was not going to take it to the floor, and, two, that she was going to do everything that she could to make certain we have a victory...

"We could be on the spot if we don't get some answers about what does it mean when you say that you are not endorsing -- or what does it mean when you say that you're not out of the race. It just doesn't make any sense. It's inconsistent with wanting a Democratic victory and not endorsing the Democratic candidate."

He also told ABC News:

"Unless she has some good reasons-- which I can't think of-- I really think we ought to get on with endorsements (of Obama) and dealing with what we have to deal with. so we can move forward." ***

Asked why the Senator told supporters Tuesday night that she needed more time to consider her future, Rangel said: "I have no clue."

In fact, Rangel said he was surprised by last night's speech.

"Basically in talking with her I had the idea that, one, she wasn't going to take the fight to the convention. Two-- that she was just calling her friends and supporters in order to share her views and to get our views on what should happen. And it was abundantly clear to me last night that she was going to do all that she could to make sure we have a victory in November. And since we have only one candidate for that victory in November, I had assumed she would be endorsing Obama."

Since Senator Clinton did not endorse Obama and did not concede the nomination, Rangel said members of the NY delegation were feeling torn about what to do.

Rangel then arranged a conference call of Clinton's own supporters in Congress -- not Obama's supporters, but her own -- and when others in Congress heard about the call, so many asked to join it that in the end 22 representatives were on the line to tell Clinton that they loved and supported her but that her refusal to stand down (and to release them from their pledges so they could rally behind Obama) was hurting them and hurting their party.

Another important Clinton supporter, Walter Mondale -- the first Democratic nominee in history to choose a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, as his running mate -- broke ranks and fell in behind Obama. And on, and on, and on -- an oceanswell, a tide.

Clinton might believe that events, or even people, conspired against her; but the truth is simpler: time and tide wait for no woman, and although Obama honestly tried his best to give her all the time she needed, even he ultimately had no more time to give. McCain made the pivot and launched attacks against Obama on Tuesday night and all day Wednesday; Obama made the pivot and took the fight onto McCain's turf, giving an almost hawkish speech to AIPAC and scheduling campaign appearances in red territory; the whole rest of the Democratic Party made the pivot, coalescing behind Obama to ensure the best possible chance of victory in the Fall, not just for the nominee but also for all downballot Democrats, including themselves. The press, which in reality has not ganged up on Clinton as she claims but which works under an unforgiving imperative to correctly identify and follow the true story, made the pivot and turned their attention to the protagonists, which a bewildered Clinton only now is starting to realize she no longer is.

This "wrong timing" theme has characterized Clinton's entire campaign. She misread her own inevitability and banked on winning by Super Tuesday -- and was bankrupt afterward, unable to campaign effectively or even to pay her staff's health insurance. She discovered -- probably even to her own surprise -- that she could sell a "populist" persona, and skillfully cultivated it into a surprising series of comeback victories -- but only after it was too late to catch up to Obama's delegate lead. A press conference call last week, announcing the formation of a "women for Hillary" group, serves as a small but symbolic example of the Clinton campaign's clumsy timing: one of her state press offices unknowingly scheduled it right after a major conference call by Clinton's main Michigan/Florida strategists discussing the upcoming Rules Committee hearing, and that more important conference call -- again, by other Clinton press people -- distracted and busied the media so completely that only two reporters dialed in to the smaller one. I was one of those reporters; I felt bad for the well-meaning and competent staffers and backers who hadn't been told that the air had been sucked out of the room; but the fact that I had to explain to them what their own campaign was doing was emblematic of the whole campaign.

And then, on Tuesday, Clinton wanted time to think things over before doing the right thing. She forgot what the British politician and poet Andrew Marvell wrote nearly 400 years ago:

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, Lady, were no crime

We would sit down and think which way

To walk and pass our long love's day. ...

But at my back I always hear

Time's winged chariot hurrying near;

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

Look at just some of the things those 20 short hours of "thinking which way" cost Clinton:

• They may have cost her the vice-presidency, as discussed above. (Though, according to some reports today, she still doesn't seem to have realized that yet.)

• They cost her personally. She could have claimed a symbolic victory for women's progress on Tuesday; by waiting, Clinton was forced instead to concede defeat Wednesday -- on the 89th birthday of her mother, who is one of those emblematic women born before women even had the right to vote and who dreamed of living long enough to see one become president.

• They may have imposed a very real cost on her campaign staff. One thing even a losing candidate in her position can and should do is help her mid- and low-level staff land jobs, if they want them, in the campaign and ultimately in the administration of her rival. Clinton herself is a millionaire and will return to the Senate; her top advisers like Wolfson and Mark Penn will never hurt either for cash or for employment; but Clinton has been supported by hundreds of extraordinary ordinary people, many of whom left their families and friends to take low-paying jobs in which they would travel incessantly, work much, sleep little and be enslaved to their Blackberries, and who have been working tirelessly and indispensably as advance press ground people and state press officers and wranglers who shepherd Clinton's ragtag traveling press corps off the plane and onto the bus and off the bus and onto the plane, and who arrange decent food (and point out everything from landmarks to convenient bars) along the way. Clinton owes a tremendous debt of gratitude, and of patronage, to her people -- people like Julie Edwards, Erin Suhr, Jamie Smith, Sally Albright, Eric Lovecchio, and the other amiable and competent and loyal Clinton aides I met (and who treated me well) when I uncharacteristically rode on the press bus with Clinton's campaign in Oregon -- and to scores of other supporters like them. Some of these people do have jobs to go back to, and Obama is courteous and compassionate enough -- and astute enough, knowing talent when he sees it -- to make room for many more of these talented people in his own campaign -- but it will not be thanks to Clinton, who in just 20 hours saw much of her ability to advocate for her own people dissolve in that relentless tide.

• They may have cost her $11 million. It's not uncommon for winning campaigns to pay off the loser's debts, including loans they've made to their own campaigns. And a Hillary Clinton with cards to play might have bargained for such help from Obama. But many of Obama's financial supporters -- who on average gave only about $95 -- are upset that their hard-earned contributions might be squandered on a woman who they (rightly or wrongly) have come to see as the enemy of their entire party; Obama's generosity might not extend so far as to risk disaffecting a sizeable chunk of his base and reducing his spending power against McCain merely so Clinton can repay herself (and the detested Mark Penn).

Mostly, though, Clinton's indecision and insensitivity to the nature and demands of time have cost her a precious and irreplaceable portion of her otherwise well-earned place in history. When the second draft of that history is written, she will be seen as a heroine, but a flawed one; as an example of women's progress, but also as an example of humanity's faults; as a star whose brilliance ultimately was shaded, though not completely eclipsed, by her own ego and her own inexplicable naivete about the inexorability of time and tides.