JANUARY 9, 2008
For the reporters covering her campaign, the first clear sign that Hillary Clinton would win the New Hampshire primary came in the form of a beaming Terry McAuliffe. At roughly 10:30 Tuesday night, the former Democratic Party chairman and longtime Friend Of The Clintons appeared in the filing center where reporters had just hours earlier been prepared to type out Hillary's obituary to proclaim victory. "This is a big, big win for us," said McAuliffe to the clutch of stunned reporters gathered around him.
I had last seen McAuliffe the previous Thursday night, just after Hillary's humiliation at the hands of Barack Obama in Iowa. Standing onstage at Hillary's post-caucus event at a Des Moines hotel, he'd looked strained and tired, interrupting his bursts of good cheer with worried glances at his BlackBerry. But now McAuliffe, who is tall and athletic, had the cocky glow of a college quarterback who had just lobbed a winning touchdown pass. "My phone, the last hour, has been ringing off the hook," he said with a measure of glee.
McAuliffe wasn't the only one glowing. Press aide Jay Carson, a dashing young man who recently had taken on the look of an undertaker, struggled to suppress grins as he took questions from reporters at his candidate's victory event. Another communications hand, Phil Singer, wandered the college gymnasium looking positively blissed-out, somewhere between stoned and post-coital. Even Hillary's famously gruff and sometimes intimidating communications director, Howard Wolfson, cracked a rare smile by the television camera riser as he received a series of congratulatory hugs from current and former Clintonites, including the writer-cum-advisor (and TNR alum) Sidney Blumenthal, and delivered valedictory spin for reporters who, just hours before, had been gossiping about his potential ouster from the campaign.
These looks of relief belied the campaign's earlier spin that the Iowa results had been a trivial annoyance. It was clear just how fully Hillary's aides felt they'd been staring political death in the face. Nor had any of them expected their comeback. After the caucuses I asked one stubbornly on-message Clintonite what he thought could possibly stop the narrative of Hillary's demise in the mere four days between Iowa and the New Hampshire vote. He shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, and offered a fatalistic, "I don't know."
On the ground in New Hampshire, the Clinton team took out their frustrations on the media. The campaign lashed out against the press in surprisingly brazen terms--from Bill Clinton's fury that Obama was benefiting from "the biggest fairy tale I have ever seen" to Hillary's complaint that Obama and John Edwards have been "given pretty much a free ride" to off-the-record harangues by Clinton surrogates that reporters weren't doing their jobs properly. (Bill Clinton also tossed in an implication that sexism was at work when he lamented a day before the primary that he "can't make her younger, taller, male.") "I guess now they're complaining about the vast left-wing conspiracy," an aide to a rival campaign chortled on Tuesday afternoon.
This was nothing new: Clintonland has always stewed with resentment for the press. In doing so, they sometimes overlook the unique advantages the media offers Hillary. For years her celebrity power and the long reach of the Clinton machine have allowed her aides to leverage access and intimidate critics. (As Hillary faltered in recent weeks, some reporters and operatives questioned whether resentment over the campaign's rough press tactics had finally led to a serious backlash.) But it's also indisputable that false stories about Hillary spread with Ebola-like virulence, and that Hillary bashing brings easy rewards, as the Drudge Report demonstrates every day. Likewise, it was obvious that the media was swooning for Obama. One can only imagine the response in Clintonland when NBC's Brian Williams explained that one of the network's Obama reporters had recently told him that "it's hard to stay objective covering this guy."
But in the final stretch here, it may have been the media's peculiar obsession with Hillary that rescued her. Her aides said that two moments were critical. One was the flash of temper she displayed at Saturday night's debate, after Obama and Edwards seemed to be teaming up on her as an agent of the Washington "status quo," as Edwards put it. The other was her now-famous near-teary moment in a Portsmouth cafe after one woman asked about her travails in public life. Both episodes drew huge amounts of attention precisely because the nation is so fascinated by what makes her tick. For weeks Hillary's aides had labored to make her seem less remote and imperious, more human and likeable. Hence the trail appearances of Dorothy Rodham and Chelsea Clinton. But it seems to have taken a pair of spontaneous moments--replayed ad infinitum on MSNBC and Fox, and debated on tens of thousands of websites--in which Hillary briefly dropped her robotic faade to convince voters (especially women sympathetic to the campaign's implicit cries of sexism) that she is, as Hillary herself put it in one interview, "a real person."
Shortly before midnight, in what must have been among the night's sweetest moments, Wolfson climbed on the riser for an interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews, a campaign nemesis consistently critical of Hillary. Just two days earlier Matthews had jousted with the candidate at a press conference at which he urged her to appear on his show. "Yeah right," Hillary replied sardonically, marveling, "I just don't know what to do with men who are obsessed with me." But now Matthews, who'd spent the past several days in an apparent swoon for Obama, was chastened. Wrapping up his segment with Wolfson, the "Hardball" host offered his guest an unusually solemn declaration: "I will never underestimate Hillary Clinton again." Wolfson had conducted the interview with his typical grim face. But when he climbed down from the riser, he allowed himself a smile.