Emotion Without Thought
in New Hampshire

January 10, 2008
Judith Warner

Tags: Hillary Clinton, new hampshire

On the morning after the New Hampshire primary, CNN’s John Roberts interviewed Marianne Pernold Young, the woman whose coffee shop question – “How do you do it? How do you keep upbeat and so wonderful?” – is largely credited with setting into motion Hillary Clinton’s surprise victory on Tuesday.

“When you asked her the question, what were you looking for?” Roberts asked the middle-aged freelance photographer from Portsmouth, N.H. “Because when [Hillary] talked to me . . . right after you had asked her the question,” he continued, “she said she was so genuinely taken aback and touched by the fact that someone cared about her. Is that the angle that you were coming at the question from?”

“No,” Young said.

There was an awkward millisecond of silence as the genial host let this sink in. “I was asking her as a friend,” Young went on. “As a woman to woman I wanted to know how she does it.”

In other words, the question about how Hillary “does it” had nothing to do with Hillary at all.

It was all about Marianne.

Searing political questions resided behind what Young called her “simple, honest, genuine” query. Could she “relate” to Clinton? Was she likely to find a “friend” in a woman with a camera-ready helmet of hair? Could she learn from Hillary? Could they share beauty tips? Would her gesture toward female bonding be well-received and perhaps met with the kind of positive mirroring of which Best Friendships Forever are made?

“As a woman,” she prefaced her question, “I know it’s hard to get out of the house and get ready…”

“You know, I think, well, luckily, on special days I do have help,” Hillary volleyed in return.

There was something disquieting about this televised prodding of an almost entirely cerebral woman by an emissary of the “Girlfriend” posse. There were shades of voyeurism, of a perverse kind of exoticism akin to the fascination with which 19th-century European crowds once pressed around the cage of the Hottentot Venus, trying to figure out if she was fully human.

Yet Hillary managed to survive it – and thrive. She gave the people what they wanted, with one notable exception in Young, who went on to vote for Barack Obama.

She proved her humanity; “I’m a person, much to some people’s surprise,” she broke with her new soft-voiced humility to tell Diane Sawyer, rather rancorously, after her almost-tears made big news.

How absurd. How depressing and disheartening and just plain dumb this whole business is.

The lesson from the coffee shop interlude – if that interlude is indeed mainly the thing that led the 37 percent of voters who were undecided or lukewarm about their choices in the final days of the campaign to ultimately go for Hillary – ought to be summed up in a new slogan.

“It’s the Economy, Stupid,” was the famed James Carville adage that kept candidate Clinton on message in 1992.

“It’s Not About You, Honey,” could be the new slogan for Clinton redux.

It’s all about how you make voters feel.

Feeling – not thinking – becomes all-important when you have a field of candidates who aren’t really all that different from one another politically. It’s particularly important for not-so-political voters; the ones who, for example, aren’t super worked up about Hillary’s Iraq vote, or the lack of universal coverage in Obama’s health plan, or the finer points of Edwards’ billion-point plan to Build One America. I’m not sure if these really are the voters who created the upset in the New Hampshire primary — after all, according to exit polls, the lion’s share of the people who said they made up their minds prior to this past month voted for Hillary — but they’re certainly the ones who stole the headlines. And in a general election, it’s the undecided voters who, in the end, make all the difference.

In New Hampshire last weekend, I saw candidate after candidate – with the exception of Hillary – milking their crowds’ feelings with exquisite mastery. While she talked health care and education reform (and her husband, unbelievably, stunned an audience into silence with a lecture on the molecular makeup of obscure biofuels), Obama reached right into his youngish fans’ hearts, magnified their desires to Feel Something Big, and rocked their worlds. Mike Huckabee even had me shedding a tear for his rise from a town called Hope (“If I can do it, then your kid can do it, too”), almost had me raising a fist as a heckler was dispatched (“The great thing about this country is we’re not going to take him out and shoot him. We’re not going to take him out and beat him up”), and almost choking down a sob as he exhorted all of us former scouts in the audience, on behalf of America, to “leave your campsite in better shape than you found it.”

If I did not have trouble believing that there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark, I might follow this man – and the very pleasant Chuck Norris, of course – to the ends of the earth.

But then, as a young Hillary Rodham once put it, “Emotion without thought … is pitiful.”

I don’t for a moment begrudge Hillary her victory on Tuesday. But if victory came for the reasons we’ve been led to believe – because women voters ultimately saw in her, exhausted and near defeat, a countenance that mirrored their own – then I hate what that victory says about the state of their lives and the nature of the emotions they carry forward into this race. I hate the thought that women feel beaten down, backed into a corner, overwhelmed and near to breaking point, as Hillary appeared to be in the debate Saturday night. And I hate even more that they’ve got to see a strong, smart and savvy woman cut down to size before they can embrace her as one of their own.