In Speeches, Clinton Often Veers to Dark Side

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who spoke at Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., yesterday, often chooses to tell dark tales rather than use light phrases while campaigning.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who spoke at Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., yesterday, often chooses to tell dark tales rather than use light phrases while campaigning. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008

It almost always comes when the audience least expects it: the moment Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton brings a roaring crowd to a hush with a heart-rending anecdote.

"I remember listening to a story about a young woman in a small town along the Ohio River, in Meigs County, who worked in a pizza parlor," the Democratic presidential candidate said during a stop in Cleveland, beginning a particularly grim tale.

"She got pregnant, she started having problems. There's no hospital left in Meigs County, so she had to go to a neighboring county. She showed up, and the hospital said, 'You know, you've got to give us $100 before we can see you.' She didn't have $100," Clinton said.

"So the young woman went back home," she continued. "The next time she went back, she was in an ambulance. It turned out she lost the baby. She was airlifted to Columbus."

She paused before concluding: "And after heroic efforts at the medical center, she died." The audience, as always, gasped.

The story has become a staple of Clinton's stump speech, a prime example of how, in a campaign year in which lofty phrases have taken center stage, she has rejected sweeping oratory -- "just words," as her campaign likes to accuse Democratic rival Barack Obama of offering -- in favor of a dramatic speaking style all her own.

In hushed tones, sometimes with palpable sadness in her voice, Clinton tells dark, difficult anecdotes picked up on the campaign trail. They often relate to health matters, culled from her conversations with voters, and are designed to illustrate a policy point.

Presidential candidates across the decades, from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, have honed the art of picking out stories to bolster a policy position in particularly human terms. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.), who left the Democratic race this year, often cited the stories of people he defended as a trial lawyer. For all of his grandeur, Obama can turn serious as well; at least once, in an effort to demonstrate how fleeting life can be, he detoured from his speech to tell the story of a woman he had recently met who, moments later, found out that her child had been killed in a car accident.

For Clinton, the approach seems to bring together her best skills, especially her ability to listen to voters she meets. In speeches that sometimes wear on and sometimes derail into deadening policy, sharing bleak stories can focus the audience's attention.

It also allows Clinton, who has only recently grown more comfortable talking about herself, to show that she understands how people live and how her policies would affect them. The story of the pregnant woman, which the candidate heard from a deputy sheriff in Ohio, provides a chance for her to talk about health care. At a town-hall meeting in Hanging Rock, Ohio, where the story drew audible gulps of horror, she ended by saying: "It's a real indictment of our health-care system. That shouldn't happen in America."

To emphasize her work on mental-health care for veterans, Clinton regularly describes meeting an Iraq war veteran whose wedding ring melted into his hand during an attack, and who also suffered a brain injury that forced him to rely on his wife for basic directions.

She routinely quotes the young man as asking: "Where do I go to get my brain back?"

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