Hillary In Her Element

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Grinnell, Iowa 

I spent yesterday afternoon and evening attending Hillary Clinton events in Vinton and nearby Tama (pronounced "tay-muh," I think). Say what you will about her limitations as a public speaker, she's very good at these small-town events, which draw a couple hundred people at a time. In the debates and her high-profile speeches, she can come off as kind of an Iron Lady--not an altogether bad thing for a presidential candidate, but not exactly inviting either. Yesterday she struck me as more of a nurturing-mother type. 

Hillary's voice at these events is warm and intimate--and maybe slightly more midwestern than you hear in Washington or New York. (The word "contract" evolved into something approaching "cahn-traik.") And when she raises it, it's in the manner of an exasperated parent, not some soulless authoritarian figure. At one point an audience member in Tama asked what could be done to stop companies from moving offshore. Nothing, Hillary lamented. It's a free country, and we can't exactly block them at the border. But, she added, there's absolutely no reason to reward these companies with cushy tax breaks. "I am sick and tired of that kind of behavior," she said, as though scolding a child. "If they want to move a job, they're not going to get a single cent." I wondered if she ever inadvertently added "young man" or "young lady" to the end of a line like this.  

Despite all the hard work John Edwards has put in since 2004 and Barack Obama's obvious intelligence, Hillary's wonk credentials remain unsurpassed. But she doesn't wallow in them--the wonkiness goes down easy. You could hear the Tama audience gasp in amazement when, in response to a question about energy policy, Hillary mentioned a prototype lithium-ion fuel cell that had powered a car 1,500 miles on only ten gallons of gas. She later explained how the Model T's of Henry Ford's day were actually more efficient in some respects than the typical contemporary car--something I'm sure will be repeated in kitchens across Eastern Iowa. And Hillary is funny--not Richard Pryor funny, not subversive in any way for that matter, but still genuinely amusing. Responding to a question about what it would mean to be the first female president, Hillary talked, as she often does, about the 95-year-old women who approach her at campaign events to say they dream of living to see her make history. Then she told a story about a 98-year-old woman she recently met in New Hampshire. This is probably my last presidential election, the woman told her. Oh, I don't know, Hillary said, I may need you for my re-election. Well, the woman reconsidered, my doctor did just install a new pacemaker that's supposed to last seven years...

One final thought: After seeing Hillary up close, the planted-question fiasco makes even less sense to me. That's because Hillary turns out to be unusually good with hostile questions. At one point a longtime military man got up and ticked off all the usual objections to allowing gays to serve (close quarters and all). Hillary respectfully heard him out, acknowledged his service and his goodwill, then explained her position in terms he could appreciate. It doesn't make sense to discriminate against patriotic people just because they're gay, she said. We shoot ourselves in the foot when we force them out--just look at all those Arab-language translators we've lost. But gay soldiers must observe the same uniform code of military justice everyone else does, and she would no more tolerate misbehavior by gays than by straight soldiers. The man may or may not have been satisfied, but the rest of the audience seemed won over.  

There was also this: A little earlier in the evening, we in the press section heard some murmuring from a man who was either drunk or unstable or both. Pretty soon the murmuring turned into outright heckling. And, within a couple minutes, the entire crowd was aware that something uncomfortable was about to happen. Hillary was the calmest person in the room. She looked at the heckler and practically cooed: "Just a minute, sir. You'll get a chance. You'll get a chance." You would have thought she was talking to an over-eager first-grader. Of course, maybe it's easier to be calm when you have a Secret Service detail at the ready (the man was promptly hustled out into the street). But I've never seen a candidate handle something that disruptive with such poise.

--Noam Scheiber 

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