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The Difference Between Faint and Fainthearted

By Tina Brown
Thursday, February 3, 2005; Page C01

Don't faint, Hillary, you're all we've got! There was a tiny ripple of panic among Downstate Dems when the junior senator from New York uncharacteristically swooned on the road in Buffalo on Monday. After all, who else do New Yorkers have to make them feel a part of the action? It's probably more rewarding to be an out-of-power Sunni now than it is to have been a supporter of John Kerry in the last election. At least in Iraq they seem to mean it when they say they'll build a coalition in which a disenfranchised minority gets a share in government.

Hillary Clinton's move to a sensitive centrism on abortion has beaten everyone's expectations about how long she would wait before starting Phase Two of her Permanent Campaign. The same big Manhattan donors who vehemently wrote her off at the end of last year after all the crusading for a red-state male are grudgingly admitting that the woman is a warrior. At this rate she'll be guest-hosting "The 700 Club" by Easter.

Iraqi women crowd the entrance to a polling station in Najaf. (Faleh Kheiber -- Reuters)

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Before the Iraqi elections she showed her honed political sense to the max by issuing a positive early statement of hope for its success. Compare that with the bungled timing of Ted Kennedy's exhortations at Johns Hopkins University to start pulling out the troops now or John Kerry's surly enumeration on "Meet the Press" of future Iraq hurdles to real democracy just when Iraqis themselves were savoring a hard-won moment of jubilation. New Yorkers had to wake up on Monday to an especially acute gust of partisan halitosis from John Podhoretz in the New York Post that was all the more galling because it was true. "Yesterday was a day for Democrats and opponents of George W. Bush to swallow their bile and retract their claws and join just for a moment in celebration . . . but you just couldn't do it, could you?" heckled Podhoretz. "Losers!" Sure enough, my first e-mail of the day was a copy of a mass mailing from a gloomy progressive brainiac that included a 1967 New York Times article headlined "U.S. Encouraged by Vietnam Vote: Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror."

The great thing about Hillary is the driving practicality of her ambition, which steels her to keep a clear eye on the big picture. Democrats have spent the past four years sneering at George Bush's lack of nuance, but now they're sick of nuance themselves. Nuanced positions on Iraq just make them feel small. Liberals don't want to be left spreading the grumpy notion that liberty can't travel, even if it turns out to be true. If all the fake rationales and pigheaded ideology and bungled management that took us into the debacle of the war end up with the vibrant images we saw on Sunday at the Iraqi polls, then, well, maybe there's something to be said for the blank slate of the president's historical memory.

The timing of the State of the Union address on the wings of Sunday's catharsis at the polls was yet more winner's luck for the president. His confidence is now such that even the wonky details of his Social Security proposals were delivered with the bravura of a political conquistador.

In the two weeks since the inauguration, there's a weird sensation around that the new political requirement is not to get on board this or that Republican program but to be, like the president, Born-Again. Condi Rice, like Laura Bush at the inauguration, glimmered in bridal white at her confirmation ceremony. "The time for diplomacy is Now!" she declared at her grilling by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and she said it with such pristine conviction that there seems no point anymore in lugging around the tired old knowledge that the time for diplomacy was Then.

Even reporters on the ground in Iraq could hardly believe what they were living through as they watched the power of an idea transmute into the living, breathing form of black-clad women, Marsh Arabs and throngs of Kurdish mountaineers festively making their way to the polls. The father of a young reporter who has spent most of the last two years in Iraq shared with me his son's e-mail from Baghdad. "We journalists are all sitting round and asking each other how we missed what's clearly a far deeper drive for political and societal change than we realized. It is a measure of our isolation here -- and also, I think, a measure of how the violence and humiliation of the occupation has masked people's very genuine feelings."

The same is true of most Americans. Prof. Fouad Ajami, a Middle East expert, explains the phenomenon. "The election gave Americans the chance to bond with Iraqis again," he told me on the phone. "The problem has been that we didn't see enough gratitude from the Iraqis. We lost faith, and now suddenly Iraqis were doing this very American thing. They have recovered their country's dignity. America loves to see this kind of innocence. Who can be indifferent to the beauty and drama of Iraq's history?"

That's why among Democrats there's a lot of quiet soul-searching going on. Every Bush hater you meet in New York is engaged with an inner struggle of how much to let go of the past. They are like wives midway through marriage therapy designed to reconcile and foster a new beginning with a feckless husband who has perpetually let them down. Hillary Clinton knows what that feels like better than anyone else. Which is perhaps why she has the discipline to hang tough, befriend the enemy and leave revenge to the future.

© 2005, Tina Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company