Hillary Clinton didn't win the New Hampshire Democratic primary because she almost cried.
Exit polls indicated that a majority of those who decided which candidate they would back within three days of the primary ended up voting for Barack Obama. That would seem to preclude the possibility that hordes of sympathetic voters changed their minds at the last minute and flocked to the polls to vote for Hillary because she showed them a glimpse of her "softer side."
For those who weren't following the final days of the New Hampshire campaign that closely, the welling up of Hillary's eyes occurred during a campaign stop at a coffee shop Monday. After several voters had posed the typical policy questions, one woman took a different tack: "As a woman, I know it's hard to get out of the house and get ready. My question is very personal: How do you do it?"
The question seemed to throw Hillary. No doubt exhausted, battered and emotional, she had a hard time answering at first. She appeared to be on the verge of tears and struggled for words.
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"It's not easy, it's not easy," she managed after a few seconds. "And I couldn't do it if I just didn't passionately believe it was the right thing to do."
She paused, and then added, her eyes glistening, "You know, I have so many opportunities from this country, and I just don't want to see us fall backwards,"
It should be noted that she soon recovered and went back to bashing Obama for his lack of experience. But "the cry" undoubtedly will have a prominent place in the history of the 2008 presidential election and, should Hillary go on to win the presidency, it is likely to be seen as a key turning point in the election -- even if it really had nothing to do with the outcome of the primary.
The history of U.S. presidential politics is full of such moments. Michigan Gov. George Romney (Mitt's dad), who ran for the Republican nomination in 1968, allegedly torpedoed his own campaign when he announced that during a 1965 trip to Vietnam, he "had the greatest brainwashing anybody can get." The reference to brainwashing was devastating, especially with its association to the genuine mistreatment of U.S. prisoners of war. Opponents suggested that anyone running for president should be immune to brainwashing, and Romney was finished.
Crying was not good for Ed Muskie in 1972. Muskie, who had been Hubert Humphrey's running mate in the 1968 election, was a front-runner for the Democratic nomination in '72. But four days before the New Hampshire primary (which, by the way, was in March back then) Muskie delivered a speech in front of the Manchester Union Leader calling its publisher, William Loeb, a liar for impugning the character of Muskie's wife, Jane. Reporters on the scene wrote that Muskie had cried silently, that he had broken down and that his face had been wracked with emotion during the speech.
Muskie steadfastly denied that he had cried, saying that what reporters thought were tears had actually been snow melting on his face. But the damage was done; the Democrats were not going to nominate a crybaby as their standard-bearer.
That might have played differently today. For one, we would have had video of the event from 10 different angles. Analysts would have spent days arguing whether those were tears or melting snowflakes on Muskie's cheeks, and what the implications might be for his campaign.
Or Muskie might have been lauded, as Hillary was, for showing the voters his inner self. He might have gained the sympathy of voters who admired his emotional defense of his wife (not to mention his tongue-lashing of a newspaper publisher).
But, whether these moments have much real impact or not, they still can become part of the political mythology. And while that might seem trite, it is a good indicator of how we really choose our presidents.
Romney Sr. and Muskie were both accomplished men and highly respected public servants. On paper, at least, both looked like strong candidates capable of attracting broad public support.
But somewhere along the line, the voters decided the chemistry was wrong.
In assessing why we support our favorite candidates, most of us can produce a list of policy points, issues on which we agree, various skills and accomplishments, solid reasons we think our candidate would make a good president. But in reality, we probably vote as much with our guts as our brains.
People elected George W. Bush twice for a variety of reasons. But one of those reasons was that he was seen as "the guy you'd like to have a beer with," even if he would be drinking root beer. Likewise, we're now in the process of judging -- if only subliminally -- which of the candidates we'd like to go fishing with, sit next to on a plane or invite into our living rooms.
Maybe, when all is said and done, we'll vote for the candidate who knows how to cry.