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January 11, 2008

The Clinton Gimmick

Roy Meachum

Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire, in spite of polls and there were more than several that showed she was running 5-13 points behind Barack Obama. But they were all taken before she turned on tears in a Portsmouth diner.

Going into her presidential campaign Senator Clinton had earned a reputation as a stoic, tough broad, immune to emotions. The thought that she might cry was completely off the table. She never showed her cheeks wet when her presidential husband caused such personal embarrassment, to her and to their daughter.

On the eve of Tuesday's elections, coming off her third place finish in Iowa, the lady pulled off an old-fashioned tear-jerker; Bette Davis would have been proud. Sitting around a table with female New Hampshire voters, supposedly all uncommitted, she unbuttoned her lip and allowed as how painfully she suffered as a woman in politics.

Her moist-eyed confession was the talk of media that Monday night, and it was a hot topic in the New England state all Election Day, according to news sources. The big question Monday night: Had she really shed tears?

The probability drew skepticism from reporters who had covered the lady all her public years, beginning with her Arkansas state house experience, even before her White House days. Much of her problem with the electorate spins around how her performance has been so devoid of compassion. On that basis, Mr. Obama blew the female majority in last week's Iowa caucuses.

Fortuitously, less than 12 hours before the first polls opened Tuesday, she was asked a question about the difficulty in being a woman seeking the nation's highest office.

The replay of that moment may have threatened the record held by Paris Hilton for the most frequently repeated tape. I saw it several times within hours after it happened. In every instance, the questioner was portrayed as an ordinary New Hampshire voter who hadn't quite made up her mind.

In fact, Marianne Pernold-Young, a free-lance photographer, has ties with the Democratic establishment dating back to her employment by the Jimmy Carter campaign. She was hostess to several Bill Clinton events, according to the Marianne Pernold Young web site.

Her bias for Mrs. Clinton was cinched by statements to reporters who asked about her role in the "diner" moment. Remember she eased into the main question by inquiring who did the candidate's hair; that vested the New York senator with a full status in her gender.

Only after that was established did the free-lance photographer launch the cue line that allowed the former first lady to wangle the vote of New Hampshire women. At Friday night's state Democratic gala, sopranos joined baritones in booing Mrs. Clinton. Twice!

Mrs. Pernold-Young asked how the candidate was standing up to the campaign's travails. Here's one published report on her reaction:

"(Mrs. Clinton's) voice quavered, her eyes moistened and reddened, she appeared about to cry as she responded. 'It's not easy, and I could not to do it if I just didn't passionately believe it was the right thing.' "

After the candidate finished, the "uncommitted" questioner volunteered to the media: "She showed emotion. She was there for me. She is there for all of us."

Without being cued, Mrs. Pernold-Young defended Mrs. Clinton from long-held opinion that she is a "cold fish," incapable of showing emotion. With little prompting the former Democratic campaign employee said: "I love it! I loved it! I think it was genuine. It wasn't issue-based. It hit a nerve and it was real."

Coming at the last moment, so to speak, the major media went with what they had: There was no chance to ascertain Marianne Pernold-Young's background. They accepted the polls were all wrong and flatly hailed Mrs. Clinton's comeback, after Iowa.

Barack Obama congratulated the New York senator on her victory in the primary; he made absolutely no reference to the cafe scene and its consequences.

Left hanging was the matter of what political wizard came up with the idea; it worked brilliantly. "Regular" Democrats can now bring their organizations and muscle into the presidential campaign, thanks to a gimmick. And that should effectively tear the party apart! New from old.

Several days after the vote count, only New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd had pinned the political trick for what it was. Many other accounts never mentioned Marianne Pernold-Young by name, when they referred to the gimmick at all.

The major media may have shied off because they were accused of creating so much negativism about the New York senator. When I expressed astonished incredulity that young ambitious reporters had not honed in on New Hampshire's "real" story, publisher John Ashbury reminded me that, as with his, editors were the final arbiters. They decide what the public reads and hears.

References to 1948 stunning victory by Harry S Truman missed the point, this week's primary had been surveyed by at least a half-dozen polling outfits. Sixty years ago Gallop stood alone.

No wonder in Tuesday's wake the Clintons looked like they were wiping cream off their lips. Both of them.

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