By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—Here in New England, we have an unofficial fifth season. It’s known as Foliage Season, the color-coded time of year when those not otherwise preoccupied with the Red Sox indulge in the benign spectator sport of leaf-peeping.
I am not surprised that presidential politics also has its unofficial season. This is the High Risk Season, a danger zone for front-runners when the media attention is not on the inevitability of falling leaves but the possibility of falling stars.
All summer the story line was Hillary Clinton’s steady-as-you-go campaign. After one debate or another, she was described as “commanding,” “knowledgeable,” “experienced.” Now even Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson are pleading their case for the Republican nomination on the claim that they alone can beat Hillary.
This image of a candidate who’s passed the presidential readiness test wooed more voters to her side. She’s now leading the Democratic field by 33 points. But this hasn’t endeared her to political reporters. The one reliable media bias, we know, is not pro-liberal or pro-conservative, pro-Democrat or pro-Republican. It is pro-knockdown-drag-out campaign. Lights, camera, action, please. Sweetheart, get me rewrite, or at least something to write about.
Thus we now enter the season when the journalistic pack, including those who rail against pack journalism, howls in anxiety at the prospect of a front-runner loping to the finish line. The colors are changing and the headlines are, too. They now read: “Can Clinton Be Stopped?” “Can Clinton’s ‘Inevitability’ Be Erased?” “How to Stop Hillary.” And “Clinton Leads Now, but Race Isn’t Over.”
Well, right, the race isn’t over. The voting hasn’t even begun. But maybe we can stop reading the maple leaves for a moment and take in a larger view of the landscape.
We are heirs and heiresses to a century of speculation on whether Americans would ever vote for a woman. I have a Wonder Woman poster from 1943 imagining the first woman president ... 1,000 years in the future.
When Hillary Clinton first entered the race, the story line had a pink border. Those same headlines asked and asked and asked: “Is the Country Ready for a Woman President?” The buzz about the former first lady was about being the first woman.
It’s pretty stunning that in less than a year, the question has morphed from whether a woman is “electable” to whether she’s “stoppable.” It’s even more remarkable that Hillary is now seen less as the woman candidate than the establishment candidate.
I began noticing the de-gendering—forgive the word—of Hillary Clinton last March. About then, the right wing’s favorite “radical feminist socialist” was becoming the left wing’s “politics as usual.” Now, as the High Risk Season opens, she’s framed less for making history than for perpetuating a dynasty. After a millennium as political outsiders, how is it possible that the serious female contender is cast—and even castigated—as the insider? As Hillary would say, “Hello?”
Remember that Clinton has not escaped the pink microscope. Who can forget the V-neck that launched a thousand treatises on the meaning of cleavage? Now cleavage coverage has been followed by cackle coverage, those endless deconstructions of her laugh.
The stakes and styles are still different for women. The late Elizabeth Janeway once predicted that the first woman president would be a Republican. She’d defuse her sex by conservatism. Hillary is no Republican, nor is she Margaret Thatcher. But women walk a fine line to erase a gender line.
So this is where Clinton is ... walking that line. While Barack Obama gets praise for making history, she gets points for experience. When John Edwards outflanks her on the left, this “polarizing figure” settles deeper into the comforting center. It’s the best place for a woman in the general election.
But at the same time the media are clamoring for action—Can Hillary Be Stopped?—many Democratic primary voters are just plain clamoring. So there’s some danger in typecasting the first woman as the old guard.
This is an emblem of our era. We’ve gone straight from pre-feminism to post-feminism without stopping along the way to experience the real thing. A woman in politics was once automatically seen as a change agent, but too much of an outsider to entrust with the Oval Office. We’ve still never had a woman president. But now, the case against Hillary is that she’s too much of an insider?
Hillary Clinton: politics as usual. Or maybe life as usual. First you struggle to get into the establishment and then you get dismissed as too establishment. There’s got to be a touch of irony in this seasonal affective disorder. If, that is, any woman still dares to cackle.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group