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Crying Likeable Tears

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By Richard Cohen
Thursday, January 10, 2008; 12:00 AM

Rick Lazio must have known what was coming. As Hillary Clinton's Senate opponent in 2000, he alarmingly strode across the stage during a debate and demanded that she sign a pledge to ban the use of soft money in their campaign. With every step, he lost more women's votes.

Now something similar has happened. I am not referring to the most famous cry since Evita's ("Don't Cry for Me, New Hampshire"), but to Barack Obama's patronizing dismissal of Clinton in the final debate of the New Hampshire campaign. After Clinton had good-naturedly responded to a question about what is sometimes called her "personality deficit" -- "Well, that hurts my feelings" -- she went on to concede that Obama is "very likable." Obama responded with a curt "You're likeable enough, Hillary."

Wince. Slap. A version of "nice personality" -- the killer description of a girl from my high school days. It was an ugly moment that showed a side of Obama we had not seen and it might not have been characteristic. But it made for vivid TV, a High-Definition Truth, and probably more than a few women recoiled from it.

Obama could have remedied the situation -- Lazio later recovered his standing with suburban women -- but the Illinois senator continued to look disdainful on television and seemed to be acting for all the world as if his inauguration was a mere formality.

Was this the moment accounting for the gender gap that put Clinton over the top? Women, 57 percent of the New Hampshire electorate, went for her by 12 points. That was not the case in the Iowa caucuses, where she lost the female vote by five points. Something happened in New Hampshire, something that moved women. Obama would be a fool not to wonder where he had gone wrong.

As for Clinton's celebrated cry, it was not like its famous predecessors -- Ed Muskie's 1972 cry or Pat Schroder's 1988 breakdown -- a surge of self-pity. If I had to use a single word to describe it, it would be "maternal." She did not cry for herself. She cried for the country.

"It's not easy," she said of the campaign. "And I couldn't do it if I didn't passionately believe it was the right thing to do. ... You know, this is very personal for me. It's not just political. It's not just public. I see what's happening, and we have to reverse it. Some people think elections are a game, lots of who's up or who's down. It's about our country. It's about our kids' futures. And it's really about all of us together."

Instantly, the more cynical of my brethren wondered if the cry was staged. They punditated about whether it showed weakness and how, for God's sake, Clinton could stand up to our nation's enemies if she was going to break down in tears from time to time.

They missed two points. The first is that women don't consider crying a sign of weakness but of authenticity. And the second was that this so-called cry, actually a welling up, an emotional burp, was not a clear descent into self-pity, but a weep for the country: "It's about our kids' futures."

There's a natural tendency to make us all one. Barack Obama's race or Hillary Clinton's gender are not supposed to matter. But the Obama camp got upset when Clinton adopted the image of Martin Luther King in her rhetoric. It was theirs, the Obama camp felt -- by right, by inheritance, by dint of struggle. You can appreciate their point.

For its part, the Obama camp forgot that Hillary is a woman, as well as a wife and mother. This, in a way, encapsulates her struggle -- a life at once darkly unknowable and brilliantly public. But whatever it is, her life is a woman's life, and no man dare dismiss it.

By now, any prudent pundit ought to know better than to predict what will happen next. But the wave Barack Obama kept saying he was riding is apparently no match for a mother's warm tears.

cohenr@washpost.com


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