Hillary Gets an Address Wrong

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 7, 2006

In both theory and great expectations, today is the beginning of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. By nightfall she will have won lopsided reelection to the U.S. Senate, with plenty of money left over to start a presidential effort. She enjoys the sort of name recognition a president might envy and has the unalloyed good wishes of Democratic activists who have been waiting all these dark and awful years for a Clinton Restoration. After all, if the Bushes could do it -- one mediocre, the other incompetent -- then why not the brilliant and dazzling Clintons? The answer may be Hillary herself. She can bore a grateful nation.

Such, anyway, was the effect of her recent appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The anticipation was great. The crowd was huge, and the fact that Clinton had agreed to speak to this august body meant -- it had to mean -- that she was at last going to say something thumping about Iraq. Instead she delivered a no-news address lacking controversy, fresh approaches or even a single soaring sentence.

If one sparrow does not make a spring, then one speech is not a campaign. But those of us who have heard Clinton before were reminded that she can be industrially dull, so cautious that nothing comes out of her mouth except bromides. In his book about Hillary and her 2000 campaign ("Hillary's Turn"), Michael Tomasky dubbed her "The Laundry Lady" for the numbing numbers of little programs she would somehow implement if elected.

Caution has served Clinton well in the Senate. There, she has listened to the wisdom of Robert Byrd, who gave her his standard nose-to-the-grindstone tutorial and beamed with avuncular pride as she took it to heart and grandstanded not. On the other hand, she has led not, either.

Clinton supposedly comes to the presidential race with two built-in constituencies: women and minorities. The former I'm not so sure about, for wherever I go and her name comes up it is the ladies who make faces. As for minorities, Hillary is Bill and Bill is Hillary, and their record, if not his rhetoric, is unmatched. She has earned her following.

But that leaves the rest of us who might seek something more in a presidential candidate than lists and caution and itsy-bitsy steps toward universal health care. We want, yes, vision, leadership. We want rhetoric that soars, poetry that compels and every once in a while a phrase that pumps the heart and draws a tear. We rarely hear that sort of thing from Hillary Clinton.

The Council on Foreign Relations is not, I grant you, a stadium full of partisans. It calls for a certain understated style. Even so, Clinton managed to bore the likes of stockbrokers, money managers, corporate lawyers and others who you might think are already inured to boredom. Here and there I even saw people fighting sleep. This was her audience -- predisposed to like her, already respecting her. She gave it nothing.

Clinton, in a way, personifies the Democratic Party. Many of the most prominent mentionables (Dodd, Kerry, Biden, Edwards) have pretzeled themselves over Iraq, voting for, arguing against and now expressing dismay. But on their own, they offer not much that lifts the heart. It is a field of the familiar. Oddly, Hillary Clinton is the fresh face, undefeated and on the cusp of history itself. Given who she is and, importantly, what she is -- smart, disciplined and, when she wants, charming -- there are those who say that this campaign is hers to lose. Last week she took a first step toward that goal.


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