January 8, 2008
The Seismic Shift
By Mary Lyon
New Hampshire rocked our world this week. It sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party and through those who read tea leaves and entrails for a living. No one expected the night to belong to the wife of the 1992 "Comeback Kid," becoming a "Comeback Kid" in her own right. This was no mere aftershock to Iowa night a week ago, when Barack Obama put never-before-dared hopes on the map.
It's a seismic shift.
I recently saw a special on the History Channel - about the formation of the earth, and one episode in particular about a dreadful planet-wide ice age. The freeze began to creep toward the equator from both poles until all you saw was this cold, white, frozen orb of death. Only the smallest and hardiest bacteria and simplest life forms could survive, locked in under that tomb-like mass of ice. And then at some point, perhaps the sheer weight of those oppressive glaciers triggered something deep down under the earth's crust. Suddenly, hot volcanic action was erupting from deep within. Cracks began to form in the thick ice shell, with fire and magma spewing up, forcing its way to the surface, breaking through the cold lock-down, melting and splintering and shattering. Soon it was all about heat and energy. Somehow I feel that we're seeing that same volcanic metaphor playing out now. At first, I saw it as an explosive break through a funereal freeze of the Dark Side - where the change for which we yearn meant a decisive liberation from the deathly choke-hold of Bush/Cheney.
I still think that's an apt metaphor.
But perhaps it also reflects, to some extent, what's happened with, and then for, Hillary Clinton. Maybe the voters (at least in New Hampshire) have a stronger sense of fair play than they're given credit for.
Perhaps they think Clinton ought to be cut a little slack. Anyone on any side would have to conceed that no one has been kicked around more.
Going into the New Hampshire primary, she'd been placed on the critical list - where John McCain already was on the GOP side. He was expected to recover. Not her. And she'd had a pretty lousy week. The Iowa caucuses gave her a third-place finish. The news cycles were all about certainty for Obama and crisis for her. The weekend debate saw a pile-on from her Democratic opponents, and an actual comment voiced to her face that people didn't like her. She admitted that it hurt her feelings. The headlines in some of the biggest newspapers in the country in the last hours were downright vicious, describing her in a state of panic, and "so yesterday." The day before the primary, her voice cracked and dropped down uncharacteristically to the level of a near caress. The coverage of that emotional hiccup incident was virtually nonstop. As a radio veteran, I was surprised to hear a different voice coming from the strong, forceful female politician denounced for so long by so much of the conventional wisdom - as harsh, even cold. We knew she was smart, but was she real? She didn't cry in that case, but did get choked up. The voice cracked and lowered in volume. It was gentle, soft, human, vulnerable. It was a side we'd not seen before, and she'd had plenty of opportunities over many years to let her hair down and punch a wall or two - or two hundred thousand. Maybe it took watching the way she took a punch or two - or two hundred thousand and showed, finally, that she wasn't an emotionless machine. Women, according to exit polls, responded decisively. Perhaps the sisterhood was activated.
That planetary cataclysm depicted on TV could be symbolic of something else in our society. To watch the most recent debates was to be struck by the face each party showed. On the Republican side, it was six middle-aged to elderly white men. The Democrats, on the other hand, presented a woman, an African-American, a Hispanic-American, and a middle-aged white man. That assemblage could be taken as code, telegraphed by each party, of how they're most accustomed to seeing the country and how they see themselves. It's as if to say "This is what we're serving. These are your choices. We think they reflect us pretty accurately. We think they look like you, too." It's a lot easier this election season to see the differences between the two parties as far as who is regarded as the strongest message and emblem carriers. One party, whose leading figures tend to look the same from year to year, shows us yet again, the face of one segment of America. The other party shows a kaleidoscope of a broad spectrum of America. One party now mouths the word "Change," since it became hip last week in Iowa. The other party embodies it.
At the Iowa caucuses last week, Barack Obama won a seat at the big table for Americans of color. This week, in the New Hampshire primary, Hillary Clinton won a seat at that table for American women as well. It's as if two halves of a disenfranchised whole have finally been united, and brought inside, out of the cold. Clearly, large swaths of voters think it's time that neither race NOR gender should remain monochromatic when it comes to who gets to sit at the head of that table.
That's a seismic shift, alright.