OPEN UNIVERSITY AUGUST 27, 2007
The old Methodist Tabernacle on Martha's Vineyard was transformed into a high temple of liberalism on Saturday evening when Hillary Clinton came to address her core constituency. The Vineyard has become a campaign crossroads this week, with John Edwards passing through just before Hillary, and Barack Obama zooming in just afterwards. But Hillary's event had by far the highest profile, selling more than 2,000 tickets at $50 each, while Edwards ran a much smaller fundraiser, and Obama has limited himself to an exclusive, $1000 per person function. Still, it's hard to say just how many of the spectators at the Tabernacle came out of real devotion to the candidate, and how many came to see Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, hear Carly Simon sing with her two children by James Taylor, listen nostalgically to a speech by Bill Clinton, and gawk at all the other celebrities on hand, from Vernon Jordan to Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. I certainly fell into the second category. In fact, given the ridiculously inflated prices on this gilded island (where a child's hamburger and fries can cost $20), it wasn't a bad way to spend fifty bucks.
Still, it really would have been hard for Hillary to find a more sympathetic audience than this collection of wealthy, largely middle-aged liberals, on their annual retreat from the rigors of life in Cambridge, Hollywood and the Upper West Side. Well over half of them were women. Hillary herself, referring to her many vacations on the Vineyard with Bill, referred to the visit as a "homecoming." But for all this, she generated surprisingly little electricity. The only line which really got people to their feet and cheering was when she said how excited she would be to become the first female president. Beyond that, the laundry list of familiar positions on health care, energy, the environment, New Orleans and Iraq elicited strong applause, but little more. Hillary speaks clearly, crisply, with obvious conviction and without notes, and displays an intelligence which seems all the more desirable in the seventh Year of W. But if she couldn't get these people, of all people, genuinely excited, how well is she likely to do with the sort of voters who don't summer on Martha's Vineyard? Her success in New York state politics is not necessarily a good indicator here--voting for a president is a much more emotional matter than voting for one of a hundred senators. And it was all too easy to imagine that in a televised debate, a few well-rehearsed faux-folksy zingers from the likes of Fred Thompson could punch straight through the armor of her knowledge and verbal fluency. Overall, the event left me less enthused about the Democrats' chances if Hillary gets the nomination.