A Thank-You for 18 Million Cracks in the Glass Ceiling

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank teams with washingtonpost.com's Akira Hakuta to provide a behind-the-scenes look at government proceedings in Washington.
By Dana Milbank
Sunday, June 8, 2008

During the campaign, it was her opponent who owned the lofty rhetoric. But on the day she finally conceded defeat, it was Hillary Clinton's words that soared.

"As we gather here today," she told her supporters and staff members at the National Building Museum yesterday, "the 50th woman to leave this Earth is orbiting overhead. If we can blast 50 women into space, we will someday launch a woman into the White House."

Two hundred forty miles below the international space station, the midday sunlight pouring into the 100-foot-high atrium illuminated the thousands who had come to bid the Clinton presidential candidacy farewell: most of them women, many of them with young children, some of them in tears.

"Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it," the former candidate continued. "And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time."

It will be up to the historians to ponder why Clinton waited until the very last day of her campaign to give full voice to the epochal nature of her candidacy. Through the Democratic primary race of 2008, she had played down the significance of being the first woman within reach of the presidency. It's tempting to wonder whether things would have turned out differently if she had embraced the theme earlier -- but there can be little doubt that her last speech of the campaign was also her best.

Yesterday brought the House of Clinton full circle. Fifteen years ago, one of Bill Clinton's first inaugural balls had been held in this same building, modeled on Roman palaces. The Corinthian columns stood as before, but this time a white-haired Bill Clinton merely gave a silent salute to the crowd; he had said quite enough during the campaign.

The storied building was, too, a place to salve wounds. Congress ordered it built in the 1880s as the U.S. Pension Bureau to help the maimed of the Civil War. Yesterday it was used for a form of ritual cleansing, a chance for Clinton and her supporters to leave behind the hard feelings and put their support behind Barack Obama.

It didn't go exactly according to plan. When Clinton got to the exhortation to "do all we can to help elect Barack Obama the next president of the United States," some boos hollered from the balconies mixed with the applause. The isolated booing returned each of the half-dozen times Clinton returned to a variation of the phrase.

"I would die and slit my wrist before I'd vote for Obama," said a Silver Spring woman in the Clinton volunteers section who gave her name only as Edith. She wore a sign pinned to the back of her Hillary T-shirt proposing: "Remember in November: vote present."

There were hints that Clinton herself was appearing with reluctance. She arrived 45 minutes late for the concession speech, after refusing to acknowledge Obama's victory at all after he clinched the nomination on Tuesday night. She wore black. She took the stage to the Goo Goo Dolls tune "Better Days." She uttered 650 words before she finally uttered "Barack Obama."

"Well, this isn't exactly the party I'd planned," she said, "but I sure like the company."

No doubt. It was that rare campaign event attended by both Sidney Blumenthal and Matt Drudge. The floor and balconies were jammed with thousands of supporters, who had lined up in the oppressive heat. Among them: 81-year-old Norma Mobley of Dallas, a McCain supporter who was in town for a funeral but came to see Clinton because "it's a part of history."

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