All politicians adapt and mold themselves to fit their audience, but Hillary Clinton has elevated the art of identity politics to a science of morphology.
She doesn’t just show people what they want in order to convince them that she’s their “man” — and we no longer use that word entirely metaphorically. She becomes the people she wants to sway.
Which prompts the question: Is she human or is she … cyborg?
In James Cameron’s Terminator II: Judgment Day, the T-1000 android was made of liquid metal and could duplicate others. He “learned” a person by touching him and absorbing his data.
Hillary’s life as a political spouse and candidate has been a kaleidoscope of shape-shifting and morphed identity. In the past 15 years, Americans have witnessed her transformation from a more feminine first lady to lately becoming a manly whiskey slugger with “testicular fortitude,” as an Indiana labor leader recently described her.
In news stories and headlines, she’s increasingly been described as tough, determined, gritty, a fighter. North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said Clinton made “Rocky Balboa look like a pansy.” James Carville, comparing Clinton’s toughness to Obama’s, told Newsweek: “If she gave him one of her cojones, they’d both have two.”
While Obama continues trying to remain calm no matter what rains down on him, Clinton’s putting up her dukes. His demeanor on “Meet the Press” last Sunday said, “Let’s talk.” Hers on This Week With George Stephanopoulos the same day said, “Read my lips.”
Clinton all but kicked sand in the face of her husband’s former adviser. When Stephanopoulos asked about NAFTA, she stood from her armchair and seized the opportunity to remind viewers that Boy George used to work in the big house for the Clintons: “George and I actually were against NAFTA,” she said. “I’m talking about him in his previous life, before he was an objective journalist.”
Do we hear a “hooah!”?
In other incarnations throughout the campaign, Clinton has been whatever and whoever she needed to be. She’s shown that she can speak in gerunds with or without g’s. She can summon an African-American pastor’s cadence in church or produce tears in a coffee shop surrounded by working gals who are tired, too.
She’s just Regular People and feels their pain in ways husband Bill could only whimper about. She touches her targets and becomes them.
Trying to appeal to the Second Amendment crowd, she remembers learning to shoot with her daddy and criticizes Obama with a mailing that features a type of gun that experts say does not exist. Trying to establish her regular-guy bona fides in Crown Point, Ind., she drinks with two fists, sipping a beer followed by a shot of Crown Royal.
You can hardly get her out of a pickup truck these days. Widely circulated photos show Clinton commuting to work with a sheet metal worker in his white pickup, and giving a speech from the back of a red pickup.
No gun racks or Confederate flag stickers — risky territory for faux bubbas like the Clintons — but religious symbolism is fair game. In Pennsylvania, where Clinton successfully courted the Catholic vote, she wore a saints bracelet easily recognizable to Catholics.
Impressive, if appalling. But most impressive of all has been Clinton’s metamorphosis into a man. She isn’t only the alpha dog. She’s Cujo.
Should Clinton continue her run, Americans have a feast before them as primaries remain in such manly states as Montana and South Dakota.
Think of the possibilities: Clinton recalling her family heritage as big-game hunters. Her great, great, great uncle Buffalo Bill? Or perhaps she might discover DNA linked to Crazy Horse. In Montana, Hillary astride a horse smoking a Marlboro is an irresistible, if improbable, image. But some dust-kickers and a little chaw might be in the cards.
Symbolism, gesture and style aren’t everything in politics, but they’re plenty, especially after more than a year of rhetoric and meaningless stats. The conscious mind can only absorb so much information, and public speakers know that what matters most is the impression they make, not the words they say.
Clinton has successfully established herself as the man in charge while the lithe and willowy Obama seems too elegant for the trenches. But even cyborgs are imperfect.
The T-1000 could duplicate appearances and voices, but he couldn’t capture the soul of the human being. Eventually, people realized something wasn’t quite right.
Often, alas, too late.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group