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."
History was on Clinton's mind, too. "When I was asked what it means to be a woman running for president, I always gave the same answer: that I was proud to be running as a woman but I was running because I thought I'd be the best president," she said. "But I am a woman, and, like millions of women, I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious, and I want to build an America that respects and embraces the potential of every last one of us.
"I ran as a daughter who benefited from opportunities my mother never dreamed of," she continued. "I ran as a mother who worries about my daughter's future and a mother who wants to leave all children brighter tomorrows. To build that future I see, we must make sure that women and men alike understand the struggles of their grandmothers and their mothers."
The words flowed with a force of conviction rarely seen on the campaign trail these many months. "From now on, it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the president of the United States," she told her supporters. "And that is truly remarkable."
Behind the podium, some of the young women who volunteered for the campaign wept and hugged as she spoke to "the young people who put so much into this campaign: It would break my heart if, in falling short of my goal, I in any way discouraged any of you from pursuing yours."
She recalled the struggles for abolition, suffrage and civil rights. "Because of you, children today will grow up taking for granted that an African American or a woman can, yes, become the president of the United States," she said. "And so when that day arrives, and a woman takes the oath of office as our president, we will all stand taller, proud of the values of our nation, proud that every little girl can dream big and that her dreams can come true in America."
Soon the last rally was over, and the crowd filed outside, where the Clinton '08 T-shirts had been marked down to $5 each. Before leaving, Clinton aide Maria Cardona, holding her 3-year-old son's hand and her 15-month-old daughter in a sling, paused to reflect on the candidate's parting words about the children.
"That's why I brought them," she said. "They both can be president." She looked at her daughter, who, like her brother, wore a "Mommy and Me for Hillary" T-shirt. "She can go first," Cardona said.