That’s the word with which I concluded Part One of this series: the word NPR used to sum up, in a manner I considered cursory and condescending, the June 27 Clinton/Obama rally in Unity, New Hampshire, which David, my partner, and I attended.
My take on that event is continued here: up close, very personal.
To see and hear the full Unity speeches, both Hillary’s and Barack’s, click here.
Now, well-planned is one thing, and that event was. It had to be. Unity, New Hampshire, population 1500, is not exactly near anywhere and has little parking. The Hillary-Barack event (free) was announced
on a Wednesday night before the Friday it was to take place. The deal was, you signed up online, printed out your "invitation", and showed up at one of two locations, on either side of Unity. We were closer to the site just outside the old mill town Claremont, New Hampshire, a forty-minute drive from us. It couldn’t have been more unpretentious: a funky little racetrack called Twin State Speedway.
As we pulled in that Friday morning, around 10:00 am, the planning was already in evidence: cheerful,
orange safety-vested volunteers, most with Obama buttons, directed us to one of several large fields for parking, after checking in with walkie-talkies ("Yeah, okay, we still got room for three more down there? Good." ). We found one of the three remaining spots in the field we were directed to, pulled in between a Lexus and Geo, and began walking, then walking a little faster: magnetic pull towards where people were gathering.
Back across the field we went, joining a long line of folks waiting to board the school buses which would shuttle us to Unity. David was already roaming, taking pictures and film footage. I stayed put on line, talking to the two women ahead of me. They’d driven up from Boston, three hours away. Both had worked for Hillary. "Every state I worked the phones in, Hillary won!" said the shorter one, gray-haired, 65-ish, bright pink t-shirt and white jeans. Half-joking, half-rueful, she added, " Maybe if I had been on the campaign on the national level… "
But she too was wearing an Obama button now. And though her slight sadness echoed that of many other former Hillarians, there was an almost palpable air of buoyant exhilaration.
It was hot for New England, maybe 85, a little muggy; volunteers traveled the line, offering free bottled
water, escorting the disabled and elderly to accessible buses. A few people were selling Obama sweatshirts, buttons, t-shirts, bumper stickers and sun-hats from card-tables or out of the backs of their cars. Business was brisk, and so was the progress of the line. The chatter was loud and happy. "I started out for Hillary, then changed to Obama, then back to Hillary, and now, of course, I’m back with Obama." "… anybody but McCain." "If we don’t win this time, then there’s no hope for the Democratic party." "I’m counting the seconds till we get rid of Bush."
Live conversations between people were punctuated by inevitable cell phone calls. "Actually, I’m not in the office today. No, I’m at the Twin State Speedway. Yes, you heard me right. Unh-hunh. Yes, the Twin State Speedway in New Hampshire. New Hampshire! Yes. Yes! Well, because I’m getting ready to board a bus to go see Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama."
(Why do people on cell phones always have the need to start out by stating their location? Though, given, at that moment, it was a pretty exciting place to be, worth bragging about).
We reached the bus, clambered on, took off. The bus, funky, same poor shock-absorbers all public school
buses seem to have, took about another 30 minutes to reach Unity. The passengers looked like — well, if you created a mental picture of "average Americans", they would have been it. Young, old, many a little overweight. Almost all were white (naturally, given New Hampshire’s demographics) but there were a few Latinos and several Asian-Americans sprinkled in (under a dozen black people, outside of Secret Service, at the rally itself). The route was curvy, two-lane. The bus made its serpentine way, audibly gear-shifting up and down through wooded areas, then areas of small, mostly lower-middle class residences. An extraordinary number of these appeared to have just had their lawns mowed — the word had clearly gotten out that company was about to arrive. Unity, it turned out, was, like the Arlo Guthrie lyric in Alice’s Restaurant, "Off the side of the side of the side road."
If Unity had a downtown, I didn’t see it. As we pulled up outside Unity High School, media truck after
media truck were already parked. "NBC News!" said a pigtailed girl of maybe 10, in a white eyelet sun-dress, sitting on the bus in the seat in front of me. She read the words on the truck out loud. Her eyes were wide, her voice tinged with awe.
Past the tented tables where the Kiwanis were selling soft drinks, burgers, hot dogs, through the smoky grill-scented air of every outdoor fair you’ve ever been to, milled hundreds and hundreds of people. Some were waiting on line for the refreshments, but most were hurrying, to whatever extent was possible, towards the football field, jostling their way to the bleachers and the crowded standing-room-only spaces nearest the small flag-draped platform.
That, clearly, was where the two, until recently portrayed as such enemies, were to speak. Signs and bunting everywhere: "Unite for Change" , "Change we can believe in", "Yes we can" and hand-made signs too. A Boston-based band called Pop Gun Seven (we learned this later, when first Hillary and then Barack thanked them) was playing. Eventually the music switched to recordings: mostly the unsurprising, uplifting hopeful songs you would expect at such an occasion (Mavis Staples, I’ll Take You There) , but, surprisingly, some tinged with righteous anger (Neil Young, Rocking in a Free World). The latter, with its urgent, rough edges, is not what you would expect at a rally, but was appropriate… to anyone, that is, who is not in denial about just how seriously in it we are: how much hangs in the balance at this moment in time.
As I said in Part One, in my view, it’s 11:59 and the clock is ticking.
David and I immediately lost each other in the crowd at the rally. I scrootched in as close as I could to the left of the makeshift stage. This was a packed, standing-room-only area; it was necessary to immediately grow roots in the spot I’d claimed (the old protest song, "We shall not be moved" comes to mind). David meanwhile circled like a restless shark, taking pictures and video footage. He was in his natural element, both as a photographer/filmmaker and a lifelong political junkie.
There were inevitable warm-ups by the local and statewide politicians. The day was hot. Shading my face ineffectually with the spiral notebook I’d brought, I felt the back of my neck and cleavage start to burn. Shifting on my feet, arm aching from holding up the notebook, wiping sweat from my face, aware of but caring little about these discomforts: they were shared with everyone else present (six thousand, the reports later said), along with the palpable anticipation.
The preludes were high-energy as these things go, but everyone hungered for the main event. Still, Democrat Jean Shaheen, New Hampshire’s former governor, now running for Senate, a tall woman
wearing a raspberry pants suit, reflected the general mood: ebullient. "Dontcha think there was some… " She paused. " … divine intervention that had Barack and Hillary split the vote equally in a town called Unity?" (I had the internal relief, when she said this, of being in the North. In the South, when and if I heard a politician or anyone else standing in front of a group using the words "divine intervention", I always felt instant uneasiness: I knew what road we were headed down, and it was not one with a lane for non-Christians).
Shaheen spoke of her "incredible pride" in the two candidates, how she had chosen to concentrate on her own campaign (by implication, to endorse neither), but was "glued" to her TV Tuesday nights, watching the returns. She spoke for me, and I hope, countless others when she described the struggle as "inspiring, uplifting, and dramatic."
Yes, yes, yes, Jean, me too. How I had longed, impotently, to swat all those "Hillary should just drop out" pundits dive-buzzing our ear canals in the weeks before she ceded.
Where is it written that anyone gets the nomination handed to them? Or that they should? Wouldn’t rising to the challenge of a long and arduous campaign, dodging alleged insinuations, trying to differentiate yourself from your opponent yet not split your party, help to prepare whichever candidate won for the slings, arrows, the unceasing hits that are inherent to the American presidency today? And, oh my God, dealing with the eternal, infernal media and its frequent, shameful insistence on asking the wrongest of wrong questions — flag pins, while the world is burning? That’s like the waiter on the Titanic is taking your drink order: "And will you have red or white with that?" as the boat tilts… that’s how I viewed the flag-pin type questions.
And what about the watching children, the girls especially? In the Olympics, some get the gold, the silver, the bronze, and some come home with no medal, except that of their own mettle. No one suggests that those who aspire towards winning should shrug and walk away when it appears they won’t reach their original dream. The nobility of their struggle, the inevitable and inherent losses of some to others, is part of what elevates the practice of competition, whether in sports or politics.
(But, as Truman Capote said, "Honey, don’t let me commence.")
The crowd was restive by the time Governor John Lynch spoke, asking a series of call-and-response questions which all began "Do we want a president – " … (beat) …"who – " (beat) and then a laundry list of the things that most of us, do in fact want… "will end partisan bickering ?" … "cares about the quality of education in our country…" and on through jobs, health care, energy policy, stature in the world… But soon all he had to do was say, "Do we want a president — ?" and the sweaty audience, reaching let’s-get-on-with-the-show saturation, began cutting him off with a good-natured but to-the-point "YES!" Lynch laughed, picked up the pace, and got the hell out of Dodge.
And then, there they were.
Hillary spoke first, standing at the podium while Barack sat. And from the moment she began, as I’ve said, the day was hers.
I think I would have felt this in any event for the reasons I’ve described in Part One. And it wasn’t just
me: that was the buzz I heard later, standing on line for the reverse bus trip later, back to the racetrack. Even David, till then a dyed-in-the-wool Obama supporter who raised several thousand dollars for Obama and did some precinct-walking, finally got what I ‘d described when I talked about Hillary. Later, back in the car, he told me, ‘Until I heard her and saw her today, what you said about her just didn’t align with what I saw in the debates." He shook his head. "I think her campaign managers have a lot to answer for. Why didn’t we ever see the Hillary I heard at Unity today?"
But whether I would have felt this had I been an objective stranger, I cannot judge for certain.
And to my own surprise I found myself weeping when I saw her: blond, tough, tender, articulate, middle-aged, funny and dear to me.
The first time I saw Hillary was in 1979, at Bill’s first gubernatorial ball, called Diamonds and Denim. Her
hair was mouse-brown, long and swept back. Her glasses made her look intelligent, earnest, and totally dorky (much like this picture, taken around this time. I found it on the net; don’t know who took it. The other woman is the Clintons’ old friend, now deceased, Diane Blair… Bill’s eulogy for her here. Later, coincidentally, Diane and I would be co-guests one night for dinner with the Clintons at the White House, see picture a few paragraphs down). But dorky or not, Hillary looked very happy that night at Diamonds and Denim. And so did Bill. I remember how beautifully she and Bill danced together. She was wearing a long gown; ice blue, I think. It was made by my friend, designer Connie Fails, about whom I once wrote for the Arkansas Times. Connie no longer designs, now working her creative genius at the museum gift shop of the Clinton Presidential Library, in Little Rock ("Somewhere," as she said parenthetically to me a few months back, as one self-employed-for-many-years-person to another, "where there’s health benefits.") .
Arkansas was, and is, a small state. Just how natural, complex, and intertwined the connections are is
hard for outsiders to grasp. Connie had made my wedding gown, two years before she made the long dress in which Hillary danced that night (that wedding dress is now at the Eureka Springs Historical Museum; I gave it to them when I left Eureka Springs). And later, in 1993, on the eve of Bill’s first presidential inauguration, Connie and I were photographed together by Annie Leibovitz for the January issue of Vanity Fair, for a pictorial on "real friends of Bill." (Here’s one of Leibovitz’s portraits of me, solo, from that same session. Pamela Harriman — quite old by then but still alluring, who swept in wearing a dramatic black cape as befitting her lifelong socialite / political demi-mondaine thing — was photographed just after me and Connie, and Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s economic adviser, who would eventually become Secretary of Labor in the his administration, preceded us. In the picture, I’m wearing what passes for my one and only evening dress, a black silk chiffon sari.)
That Hillary and I, like Bill and I, kept crossing paths time and time again as the years unfolded, was almost inevitable given Arkansas’s size.
I will skip over, therefore, the middle range of my years of acquaintance with Hillary and Bill, watching as they grew and ripened into their public selves (and, in her case, growing ever more attractive physically as well). The events we met and chatted at; the occasional note exchanged; the projects we worked together on; the brunch (travel down to the fourth paragraph on that link) I served to 1200 people at Bill’s first presidential inauguration, in the National Trust’s Decatur House, in Washington DC. (Ned was alive then, and very much part of that event. "De Catering House," he called the location, adding helpfully, "Two blocks from de White House.")
I will travel, as I did that day in Unity, to the last time I saw and talked with Hillary face to face. That was at an informal "family dinner" (her phrase, at the time), in the White House, in 1995, during Bill’s
first term. This is the dinner I alluded to a few paragraphs back (and it’s pictured left. That’s Diane Blair on the top right. Further down on the right is Bill, Hillary across from him, then me.) Always smart, always dedicated, Hillary didn’t have the natural social ease Bill did… that, she was already growing to, as she has continued to). There were only eight of us at that dinner, as you can see. Bill wearing a golf shirt, I was in jeans… the picture still hangs on the wall in my home. I look a little dazed.
That was the last time I saw her, up until Unity. But the last time I spoke to Hillary was at least part of what kept rocking me.
She called me the day after Ned died.
Unpredictably, standing in the crowd, I re-felt that surreal day not quite a decade earlier. Certainly I had not remotely expected this. But it was as if the very cells of my body were reliving, at the sound of her voice, the moment when I’d last heard it, on the other end of the phone, that day.
The house, I remember, was filled with the people, the coming and going of strangers and friends. As Emily Dickinson put it:
The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth—
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
The bustle. Pain mitigated only by sheer disorientation. It is late afternoon: why am I still in my shaggy old turquoise blue chenille bathrobe? Who are these people the house is filled with? I know them, but why are they here? Saying, "Ned is… No, was…" "We are… We were. I mean, we were, I am…" For several months after a death, especially a sudden death, innocent pronouns draw blood.
The phone rang and rang. Mostly others took the calls; occasionally, I picked one up. And I picked up that particular one (no, no caller ID).
"Crescent, this is Hillary. I just heard and I had to call you."
Ned died on November 30, 2000. So this was on December 1. Hillary had only just become Senator of New York. "But how on earth did you hear?" I asked incredulously. She said, and I remember her short, grim laugh; as I think about it I imagine her at that moment: in a new office, papers stacked up on a new desk, surrounded by unpacked boxes. That unfunny laugh, which said and the hits just keep on coming, don’t they? I picture her shaking her head in that messy office.
"To tell you the truth, I don’t even know. It’s chaotic here. An aide came in and put a piece of paper in front of me saying what happened, and with your phone number. And I had to call."
I can’t recall our whole conversation any more than I can that day. Only snatches, like moments of surfacing for air before sinking back down into and under dark water. Ned still alive to me, his death past belief. But I had seen his torn body the night before, on a stainless steel table in the hospital emergency room in Springdale, Arkansas. I had kissed his forehead, lain my hands on his sternum, as nurses, still busy, mopped up his blood. But how could any of this be? Let alone at the very moment when, in our 23 years together, each day, I was waking up amazed, as he was, at the renewed joy we were experiencing, having gotten through the most difficult period of those 23 years (more on that in Part Three) and stuck it out… how could he be, suddenly, dead?
I suspected the difficulty Ned and I had experienced, and the happiness that followed, would have been something Hillary and Bill understood (in fact we, Ned and I, occasionally speculated about this). I talked to her about our parallel hard marital journeys, how our troubles seemed to microcosm what they experienced in macrocosm. I switched back and forth between
the present tense and past, as if Ned were still alive, then
remembering he wasn’t (and do you say "we" when one of you is gone? Pronouns and possessives again: agony, perplexing). The images of his broken body, his mangled teeth, sharp unreal sobs that kept escaping at intervals, but since it was impossible and unreal, and here was Hillary, of all people, whom I hadn’t spoken with in years, on the phone, and, in the surreality of it all, I’d grow composed
and conversational again. Just two old friends catching up. I was quite literally crazed with grief.
I remember I told her about David Schnarch,
the therapist whose theories about differentiation in marriage had been such a
clarifying beacon, shining light on the dark places Ned and I had (relatively recently, about two years before his death) traveled through, at the start without comprehension.
I remember she
said, "Spell his name," and I said "S-C-H-N-A-R-C-H." In all I think
we talked about half an hour.
All great kindnesses that come when one is bereft are memorable. Much else blurs into the general agony in which you sink and rise, sink and rise: he is gone he is never coming back, the unreality of that, the well-intentioned paper-cuts of many people who
sincerely want to be helpful but don’t know what to do or say and often say
exactly the wrong thing: "Well, you were lucky to have him." "I know just
how you’re feeling. When my dog died, I …" "Well, if it helps any, I’m divorced, and that
was like a little death." "I guess God needed him worse than you did."
But those other people. The person who says not just "Call me if
you need anything," but "I wake up
easily and I go to sleep easily, so
you can call me any hour of the day or night to talk — I mean it,"
as my friend Bill Haymes did (left, me and Bill in happier times, seven years after Ned’s death, in Nashville) … My friend Chou-Chou, who labeled the medication and made an elaborate schedule, so someone was around at all times and they knew if I had eaten and taken pills. People who instead of saying "What can I do?" see that refrigerator needs cleaning out, the bird feeder
refilling, and they just do it, without asking because you are so far past remembering or caring. Later, much later, you
do remember — those deeds, those people.
Perhaps most of all, you remember those who are able to be present with
you, who hang out with you in the disorienting pain and do not try to
Simply for Hillary to call, at that moment in her life (so public) and in mine (so stricken by sudden, private loss), was a gift of this kind.
That day we last spoke was
brutal. (As remembering it here has been, in trying to deconstruct what happened in Unity for me: that’s why writing this has taken so long). What objectivity do I have?
This most personal of events, looked back on involuntarily, intersected for me with the
larger events of that day in Unity. It’s hard to articulate, even to myself, but that’s what happened. And for all that shook me from my own past, something beyond revisiting of Ned’s death happened.
I saw Hillary mount the stage. She spoke. I wept.
A grief far larger than personal was afoot.
Part of it was this: a deep sense of all we must lose as human beings to get to where we must get in this life.
All Hillary had had to endure to reach where she was. All I had. All, for that matter, everyone does, each in his or her own way. We each suffer, uniquely and universally. And then, we rise, despite it all (as I talked about in Part One, the "acceptance speech"). Or we sink.
That day Hillary spoke about both. The sinking: the hopeless, helpless invisibility that so many felt during the Bush years. The rising: a different ethos that might replace it —
… that the trials and troubles that fall to each of us during a lifetime are recognized and shared, and that a helping hand is there when it is needed.
This has been my life’s work, and it was the purpose of my campaign.
And in Unity, she assigned that purpose to Barack’s campaign, as I have said.
Most of us, if we go to political rallies like the one I’m describing, do so because we don’t know the candidates face to face, nor are we likely to. Thus, we want to get as much of a personal read on them as possible. Do they seem genuine? Are they articulate, charismatic, relaxed? Do we get a sense of personal warmth? Do they connect with us, not only in their values but in their personae?
Of the six thousand people present that humid day in Unity (not counting her and Barack’s immediate entourage), I am certain that I’m the only one who can attest not just to how truthful her words were,
but as to how Hillary Clinton lived and lives them.This is above and beyond the good I saw her do, especially for women and children, in Arkansas. I am talking again, rather, about that personal good: that wholly unexpected call. She didn’t have to do it. No one, including me, would have thought less of her. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that she should or would call. There was no reason, no usefulness (from her side, in the political sense) in calling me: I am not influential or well-known, and
if I am a friend, I am not a close one.
But trials and troubles had fallen to me. She was informed, recognized this and responded, instinctually.
Hillary’s place in American and world politics as the remaining decades
unfold is unknown. That she will
have one seems beyond doubt: we need her too much. And in her, I believe, the urge to help burns too deeply to be extinguished. Despite all she
herself has been through (perhaps most egregiously, the complete
and cynical misunderstanding of her motivations), despite being dazzlingly intelligent, analytical, savvy and informed in ways that most of us are not, never will be, and would not want to be, she persists in seeing. Seeing not just through the mind’s eye, but that of the heart.
One can be blind to suffering (example: Bush’s fly-over of post-Katrina New Orleans, days after the devastation). One can see suffering, but be overwhelmed by it (example: most of us, who, at a certain point, turn off the TV, throw the envelope from Amnesty International in the trash, shake our heads in genuine despair at all the awfulness in the world and our inability – we think – to affect it).
But to see and act, with mind and heart: that is the vision which Hillary, and presumably Barack, possess. That is what I believe she meant by the use of the word "recognizing." That is what I know she will continue to do, though in what role none of us (probably including her) yet know. And that is what I believe, I hope, I pray, Barack Obama will do.
The world, and America in it, twists in its countless large and small griefs, perils, and agonies. The clock ticks. All of us, no matter how actively we may be working to alleviate these griefs, wait, too. We wait to be heard, seen, and recognized by our leadership.
I think, in retrospect that I wept, that day, because at last, at last, we may have a leader, who, unasked, picks up the phone and calls.
To see and hear the full Unity speeches, both Hillary’s and Barack’s, click here.
Part Three will be the next post here. Look for it in the next week or so.