Tuesday, June 17, 2008

In Search of a Sense of Place

Washington Journal
June 17, 2008

How can one live in the nation’s capital and not pay attention to the presidential election process? Why bother to live here if one does not care about such things?

It is like living in the eye of the hurricane. While the actual campaigning and the deluge of television advertising usually take place elsewhere, the analysis and strategizing take place here. The thousands of commentators, newscasters, news analysts, pollsters, mavens, pundits and their attendant publications or broadcasts are usually based here. This year, somewhat unusually, both Hillary Clinton and John McCain had their national headquarters across the Potomac in Arlington County. Living in Washington gives you a ring-side seat to watch the fight.

Finally, in early June, we know for certain who the Democratic Party’s nominee will be. Hillary Clinton started out as the presumed front-runner, soon fell behind as Obama, Edwards and Clinton finished 1-2-3, separated by a single percentage point, in Iowa. She made a quick recovery in New Hampshire, won Nevada, lost South Carolina and emerged from Super Tuesday in early February with a slight lead in delegates.

Then came her nightmare: ten straight losses in caucuses and primaries, all by substantial margins, which put her behind in delegates and stopped the superdelegates, as long had been expected by this point, from declaring for her. Obama suddenly had the momentum and the money. He had out-organized and out-hustled what should have been the smarter campaign, a campaign run by two of the smartest politicians in the country and a host of experienced, battle-tested advisers.

She shook up her campaign, focussed her message, found Obama’s weak points, caught some lucky breaks and essentially re-launched her campaign. For all that Howard Wolfson, Harold Ickes and her other spokespersons have said about how her campaign has made a better candidate out of Obama, perhaps they could return the compliment, for it is certainly the Obama campaign that has made Hillary Clinton the focussed, energetic campaigner that she has been for the past couple of months.

But the last primary has taken place and it is clear that Obama has the delegates. As President-elect Richard Nixon said in 1968, after perhaps the bitterest year ever in American politics, and after an extremely close election, “I have won some and I have lost some. Winning is a lot more fun.”

Yes, winning is fun and defeat is a foretaste of hell. Yet defeat is the ultimate test of character. Only those who lose gracefully deserve ultimately to win. Usually they are the only ones who do. It is a rare politician who has not tasted defeat and tasted it rather often. Likewise athletes. The vast majority of them never win a championship. As the Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest hitter of all time, put it, “Even the best hitter in baseball walks back to the dugout looking foolish more than half of the time.”

There is some debate about the role of sports, particularly team sports, in American life. Perhaps these sports are over-valued in high school and college. Professional sports are awash in money and who knows, drugs and cheating. Nonetheless high performance athletes model for the rest of how to win and how to lose. In a highly competitive society, this is valuable behavior.

Generally, athletes don’t complain much. Their coaches do not allow it. They know that if you complain while being a loser, you will never be a winner. After the New York Knicks lost another heartbreaker to the Chicago Bulls several years ago, the New York papers showed photographs of what looked like fouls in the closing seconds. One member of the Knicks, I forget whom, responded with something like: “OK. There may have been fouls. But we still needed to put the ball in the basket, and we didn’t.” That was the end of it.

Richard Nixon did not lose particularly gracefully, but he did nothing to make it difficult for President Kennedy or Pat Brown to govern. He directed his bitterness toward the press, not towards the victors and eventually won his party’s nomination in 1968 because he simply did not give up. He toured the country giving speeches at every Republican Party gathering he could find. After a few years, almost every important Republican in the country owed him a favor. He was essentially unopposed in the Republican primaries in 1968.

This is a good lesson for Hillary Clinton, not to mention everyone else who is jostling for power in Washington, or wherever, which is just about everyone, sooner or later. She is in good health and can expect to live another twenty years. Compared to other Senators, she is not old and still will not be old in 2012 or 2016. In 2020 she will be as old as John McCain and younger than President Reagan when he ran for re-election. If Obama wins the coming election, she will be in good position to run in 2016, or 2012 if he loses.

Despite some disturbing signs from her and some supporters that they wanted to fight all the way to the convention, she stepped up to the microphones and klieg lights on Saturday to tell everyone to accept the verdict of the party, however it was determined, and support the nominee. If she and her supporters ever want to win in the future, they have to do this. How well they all do this will determine whether she will ever become an older and perhaps wiser president than she so ardently wants to be seven months from now.

- Richard Allen Hyde