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?"
"He said, 'You know, I went to West Point. Nobody had to take care of me before,' " Clinton said as she told the tale in Huntington, W.Va., on March 19. " 'Now every morning my wife has to give me a list about where I'm supposed to go and what I'm supposed to do.' "
In another story, retold recently in Youngstown, Ohio, she describes a "young woman who lost her husband in Iraq, a lovely young woman who had a daughter."
"Here's what happened to her," Clinton said. "She was given $6,000. She was told to leave the [military] base within 90 days. She was told her daughter was no longer eligible for Army medical care. She was basically on her own. So I said, 'That's not right.' So we began to work to change what was really cruel -- you lose your husband, you lose your wife, you lose your mom or your dad, and you're out, and nobody seemed to care."
Shortly before the Texas primary, Clinton spoke of a mother whose daughter collapsed in the crowd at a Houston rally and who, upon receiving a bottle of water from the candidate, whispered in her ear that she could not get her daughter medical treatment.
"She said, 'I don't have any health insurance -- I can't take her anywhere,' " Clinton recalled a few stops later. She said it was people like that who need for her to be president. "I'm not asking you to vote for me so much as I'm asking you to vote for yourselves," she said.
Perhaps the most shocking story Clinton has conveyed in recent months happened on Feb. 22, when a Dallas police officer was killed in an accident while escorting her motorcade. Late that night, in front of a riled-up crowd in Toledo that seemed only vaguely aware of what had happened, she described an "accident that resulted in his death, and it was just an incredibly sad loss, not only for his family -- he was a wonderful man; I visited the hospital and got a chance to express my sympathy to his family -- but to the police department."
Even though it was past 10:30 on a Friday night, she seemed determined to hush the crowd with a solemn message, saying: "It was really a reminder of the extraordinary work that our law enforcement officials do for us."
But it is the story of the pregnant pizza worker to which Clinton comes back repeatedly. At a Democratic dinner on March 2, she recounted it in full. She told it at a late-night rally in Cleveland just two days before the Ohio primary March 4, bringing the noisy audience to near-silence. She told it again in Charleston, W.Va, last month. Even her daughter, Chelsea, who was with her mother in Ohio when she heard the story, repeated it at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania last week. Clinton was told the story by Bryan Holman, the Meigs County deputy sheriff, who said the deceased woman was Trina Bachtel, whom campaign officials had been unable to identify.
Bachtel, Holman said, had been turned away from the hospital not only for lack of $100 but also because she had unpaid bills -- a detail that Clinton has not mentioned. Public records show that Bachtel of Pomeroy, Ohio, died on Aug. 15, 2007, at age 35. She previously had thousands of dollars in hospital debt, but it was paid off by 2005.
"It was a really terrible story," said Holman, who said he voted for Clinton in the Ohio primary. He said he is grateful that she has taken Bachtel's story to heart. "That is what we wanted."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.