If there is a political job more fraught with peril than running to become the next commander in chief, surely it is being cast as cheerleader in chief.

Hillary Clinton will be damned if she looks too methodically perfect, too much the purveyor of practiced routine and not enough the cheery personification of enthusiasm. She’ll also be damned if she’s too exuberant, too obviously raising her voice in unbridled exhortation for the team. She will either be deemed too cool or all too cagily warm.

Clinton can’t win Tuesday evening. But then, she knows that.

She is set to address the Democratic National Convention in Denver to give the valedictory address of her 2008 campaign — a race in which she went further than any woman in American history toward the elusive goal of electing a woman to the White House. But this is a speech that is also meant to soothe her bruised supporters and get them to support Barack Obama, a man who — for not a few of them — has brazenly overtaken the more-qualified woman to grab the prize and in so doing has writ large the story of their own lives.

Clinton is a woman who knows how to lose — to lose any shred of privacy, to lose face, to lose any expectation of being treated with a modicum of respect by the talking heads in the media and now, to lose a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination that she expected to win. As if to heap insult upon injury, the Obama campaign let it be known that it did not for a minute seriously consider Clinton as a running mate, notwithstanding the 18 million votes she earned during the primaries and her demonstrated ability to win over white, working-class voters who remain cool to Obama and are necessary for victory in the fall. Those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling that the Obama forces conceded could gain a reference in the party’s platform are, apparently, just words.

In her 2003 memoir “Living History,” this is how Clinton described her reaction to her earliest political loss, during her senior year in high school: “I ran for student government president against several boys and lost, which did not surprise me but still hurt, especially because one of my opponents told me I was ‘really stupid if I thought a girl could be elected president.’ As soon as the election was over, the winner asked me to head the Organizations Committee which, as far as I could tell was expected to do most of the work. I agreed.”

The work of the next phase of Clinton’s career has been going on doggedly, and often with little notice, since she suspended her campaign on June 7. She’s been a campaign emissary for Obama to the Sheet Metal Workers union, to Hispanics and others in New Mexico and Nevada; to older women in south Florida who still haven’t quite accepted the loss of what may be for some of them their last chance to see a woman elected president. The June speech Clinton made in departing from the race was, among Democratic activists, “probably the most seen, talked about, buzzed about speech of the campaign,” says Mike Lux, a consultant for Democratic interest groups and an Obama supporter. It went over well, even among Obama loyalists.

That tends to be how Clinton does things. The public Clinton doesn’t usually show hints of the private pain that burns inside.

The same cannot be said of some of her supporters, who can be expected to stage at least a few demonstrations of their fury at the outcome of the race, and at what they perceive as repeated displays of disrespect Obama has shown their hero. It is not lost on them that in selecting Joe Biden to be the vice presidential nominee, Obama has chosen, one, a Washington insider and, two, a senator who voted in favor of the Iraq war — two of the sustained criticisms of Clinton that Obama used to devastating effect during the primaries.

The television cameras will linger on angry and tearful Clinton delegates in the convention crowd. The commentators will no doubt take this as a demonstration of disunity — and not a few will, of course, blame Clinton.

But it is usually the job of the party nominee to build unity once a vanquished rival has conceded and made the right gestures. Unless the loser happens to be a woman. Then it’s just like high school, and she must do the work.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group


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