Clinton’s Classy Goodbye

When Hillary Clinton didn’t concede to Barack Obama Tuesday night, members of the media reacted as if she had run over a puppy. MSNBC’s Russert/Matthews/Olbermann triumvirate were dumbfounded that she didn’t acknowledge that Obama had sealed up the nomination. Jon Stewart depicted her speech as a series of “I wants” and “I needs” and “I dids.” On CNN, Jeffrey Toobin attributed her refusal to concede to ” deranged narcissism .”

But at today’s rally in Washington, D.C., her previous resistance started to make sense. Rather than bow out amid the furor of Obama’s victory, she wanted to exit on her own terms. She thanked her supporters for their hard work. She urged them to unite behind Obama. (She even managed a “Yes we can!” without gritting her teeth.) She painted her candidacy as a world-historic successor to the suffragists, the abolitionists, and the civil rights movement: “[F]rom now on, it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the President of the United States,” she said to cheers. “And that is truly remarkable.” And why not? She wanted a party, not a funeral.

Elizabeth Brown, a supporter from Frederick County, Virginia, called Clinton’s approach “brilliant.” “The people who volunteered for her and gave to her need time to heal,” she said. “These people count. She validated our support of her.” Brown hasn’t decided whether to vote for Obama yet, but was turned off by the glee with which the media rushed to coronate Obama. “Some of us may come around, just give us time,” she said.

“Not all of us,” a woman standing nearby piped up. Indeed, a small but vocal minority of the audience made clear they’d rather eat glass than vote for Obama. Linda Mahoney from Silver Spring had a computer print-out sign taped to her back saying “Remember in November, vote present”—a riff on Obama’s “present” votes in the Illinois senate. It was her partner’s idea, she said, pointing to the woman behind her. Mahoney was visibly sickened by the notion of an Obama presidency. “He’s a do-nothing.” But would she really prefer a McCain administration? “It bothers me a lot, but at least we can unelect him in four years.” Later, when Clinton endorsed Obama, Mahoney and her partner stormed out.

Clinton anticipated this sort of reaction. “[W]hen you hear people saying – or think to yourself – ‘if only’ or ‘what if,’ I say, ‘please don’t go there,’ ” she told the audience. “Every moment wasted looking back keeps us from moving forward.”

The message didn’t get through to everyone. Tyrone Gray, a young guy from D.C., said he has already donated to McCain and would campaign for him unless Obama picked Clinton as his vice president. “I don’t care,” he said. “I’m one of those angry voters.” His distaste for Obama was matched only by his revulsion toward the media, on whom he blamed Clinton’s loss. He wasn’t alone. When I approached a Clinton supporter named Gretchen, she nearly threw holy water on me. “You’re part of the problem,” she said. But I hadn’t even asked her a question yet, I pointed out. “It’s what you represent,” she said.

Clinton, for her part, did her best to craft a happy ending. She re-told the story of Florence Steen, the 88-year-old woman who had waited all her life to vote for a woman and died right after casting her ballot. As some media outlets pointed out ( ahem ), Steen’s ballot didn’t count. But that wasn’t the end, Clinton said: “[H] er daughter later told a reporter, ‘My dad’s an ornery old cowboy, and he didn’t like it when he heard mom’s vote wouldn’t be counted. I don’t think he had voted in 20 years. But he voted in place of my mom.’ ” It was a sweet ending to a sad story, but also a subtle dig at the media. Even though they said Steen’s vote wouldn’t count, her loved ones made sure it did.

Clinton left her supporters with the message that her candidacy and Obama’s are both historic—but that this moment is his. “I will work my heart out to make sure that Senator Obama is our next President and I hope and pray that all of you will join me in that effort,” she said. The cheers drowned out the boos.