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Hot for Hillary: At the Arlington phone bank, we were women of a certain age -- and, boy, were we peeved

Mary Burgan is a Washingtonian retired from academe. She is writing a memoir.
Mary Burgan is a Washingtonian retired from academe. She is writing a memoir. (Courtesy Author)
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By by Mary Burgan
Sunday, October 19, 2008

I was a Hillary Helper out at her headquarters in Arlington until I gave up in April. I had come into the office for the first time in late February, though I suspected even then that Clinton wouldn't get the nomination. But I felt a pull of loyalty, for despite my concerns about her lack of spontaneity and the dullness of her stump speech, I believed that she would be the last and most credible woman in my lifetime with a shot at being president. Actually, I was a bit surprised to discover how much that meant to me and how angry I could get at men who didn't see the matter's extreme importance.

These included my husband, Bill, who backed Barack Obama from the beginning, at first in admiration of "The Audacity of Hope" and later in revulsion against what he called my candidate's "dirty tricks." We were both surprised at our fury with each other and decided to stop watching the evening news together. Instead, we turned to "Cash Cab" on the Discovery Channel. We are now addicts and don't yell at each other, or the TV set, anymore.

But I can still erupt in resentment at the slightest provocation, and I am engaging in an extended postmortem to figure out why. In many ways, Clinton ran her campaign badly: failing to realize what a challenge she had in Obama, refusing to admit glaring mistakes, spending money unwisely. And in many ways I can see the great value of having a gifted man of color as our leader, especially after all the bad press our country has received from people of color around the world. I do wish Obama well, but I still wish Hillary had gotten the votes she needed.

Sitting at a telephone in Arlington, making cold calls to people in Arkansas, Missouri, Texas and Montana, I tried to help her get those votes. I was in a big room with a few dozen Hillary Helpers just like me, meaning most were women of a certain age. They tended to be a little portly, and their hair and dress ranged from business- to nursing-home-casual.

My first impression of the room was how melodious their -- our -- voices sounded. Women our age are said to cackle, but the chorus of sopranos speaking gently into all those telephones reminded me of the sweet, close harmonies Mozart gives to women in his operas. I rarely heard a voice raised when one of us encountered meanness from someone on the phone; it was all gentle persuasion, as was natural to our lifetimes of experience as wives, mothers and junior partners of one kind or another. One cranky man from Arkansas told me, "Why, I wouldn't vote for her for dogcatcher," and I mildly replied, "Well, surely she could catch a dog," before he hung up on me. I heard another woman at my table assert, "Well, we certainly want a Democrat to win, and I'm going to work for either one. Let's all keep together in this."

I was proud of our humility as we followed the directives of the extremely young men and women who told us what to do. (Well, we followed their directions as to how to dial the phones and all, though we hardly followed the scripts they gave us word-for-word. We were an extremely chatty bunch.) And we worked steadily, through all the hours assigned, though perhaps taking more-frequent breaks to talk with one another as the nomination looked less and less likely.

I think I kept going because I began to realize that we were making ourselves famous as a group in a way we never before had. Most of us had been helpers to good causes throughout our lives, but this one was different. As one woman told me during a phone hiatus, "There's a special hell for women who don't help women." She was more fierce than I, but our reasoning was the same. We were working for one of our own, who knew what we had gone through, and we felt outraged when she was slighted on television in ways that the men around us simply couldn't perceive. "He said she was 'likable,' " my husband told me, but I would have none of it. I had heard the qualifier "enough" too often in my own career.

Of course I'll vote for the nominee. As co-signers of an entente cordiale, my husband and I watched, without comment, as Joe Biden accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president in Denver. But I'm still a Hillary Helper inside; I continue to feel protective of all us "older women." I try to suppress arguing about that with my spouse. Meanwhile, Bill confesses that he lives in terror, for he knows that if his candidate stumbles, there'll be no end to the "I told you so's" from the Hillary Helper at his side. I expect he'll hear them as cackles.

E-mail: XXFiles@washpost.com.


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