Campaigning Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu

Why Clinton’s illness make it more likely I’ll vote for her, not less.

There was Hillary Clinton, faltering and unsteady. For a moment I wondered if she was going to make it. In a campaign of overly scripted moments, the unexpected stumble was unnerving, scary. We’d become so used to seeing her as an indefatigable robot that the sudden display of humanity was a shock.

I’m referring here not to Clinton’s swift exit from the 9/11 Memorial on Sunday, and her staggering into a waiting van, but to her press conference in New Hampshire on January 7, 2008, the day before that year’s presidential primary. “It’s not easy,” she was saying, in response to a voter who’d asked her how she managed to endure (and also, sweetly, about who does her hair). “And I couldn’t do it if I didn’t passionately belief that it was the right thing to do. You know, I’ve had so many opportunities from this country…I just don’t want to see us fall backwards… This is very personal for me…”

It was as she spoke these lines that the candidate’s voice grew uncharacteristically soft and vulnerable. Was she about to weep? Although the tears did not fall, they didn’t seem far away.

There was some fear back then that Clinton had committed the cardinal sin of presidential campaigns — to never display raw emotion, to stay on message at all times, and for heaven’s sakes, don’t cry. (Pat Schroeder, in ruling out a run in 1987, had supposedly doomed her candidacy not just that year, but forever after when she sobbed at a Denver podium, as her husband counselled her to “take a minute.”)

Given the uncertainty that many voters have about the idea of a female president in the first place, some observers wondered in 2008 if Clinton was going full Schroeder, or if you prefer, if she was having a “Muskie Moment.” It was in the same primary thirty four years earlier, of course, that Maine Senator Edmund Muskie’s candidacy had come to a halt when he appeared to weep as he defended his wife in front of the offices of the Manchester Union Leader, which had published a forged document later known as the “Canuck letter” accusing the Muskies of intolerance. Even now, the image of Muskie standing there in the snow, his voice breaking, remains iconic in American politics, and by “iconic,” I don’t mean in a good way. (Muskie later claimed those weren’t tears we saw on his cheeks; it was just the trails left by melting snow.)

And so as we watched Secretary Clinton stagger into the van on Sunday, many observers wondered whether this display of human vulnerability will make voters conclude that she’s somehow unfit for office, that it will prove that — like Schoeder and Muskie, supposedly — she lacks the necessary stamina and toughness.

It’s worth remembering, however, what the results of Clinton weeping were in 2008: she went on, the next day, to win the New Hampshire primary, although just by a hair — 39% to Barack Obama’s 36%. But given that Obama had won the Iowa caucuses, and that earlier polls had Clinton behind as far as 13 points, it’s reasonable to wonder whether, instead of dooming her candidacy, the display of human emotion in fact had the reverse effect, and demonstrated, in the rawest fashion possible, that inside that calculating politician was a live, beating heart.

The display of near-tears, in fact, made Clinton seem human. And humanity, as it turns out, is a trait we hold in high regard.

[This being Hillary Clinton, a number of people on the right were swift to claim the tears were fake; Glenn Beck said, “Hillary Clinton isn’t just running for president, but she’s also making a run for the best actress nomination.”]

Hillary Clinton plays the human card.

Muskie, too, won his primary 46% to George McGovern’s 37%, which makes me wonder, all these years later, whether we’ve had the meaning of the Muskie moment wrong all along? Maybe what the Maine senator needed, back then, was more tears, not fewer.

We have become so used to politicians seeming like robots that these displays of humanity seem, oddly, like glimpses of rare truths. It’s a breath of fresh air when we’re reminded that our leaders, like us, are human beings, who do things like get pneumonia, who get tired, who sometimes actually say one thing when they mean another. For most of us, this would be considered the normal warp and weft of being alive. Is being human really such a cardinal sin for the person we expect to lead the nation?

It may even be that “the human card” has been the primary appeal of Donald Trump all along. His supporters don’t really mind the fact that he doesn’t appear to know anything; when he “tells it like it is,” he’s expressing his unfiltered self, a man who appears to be the opposite of a robot. One voter in Hazard County Kentucky recently approved: “Trump’s going to get us killed, probably! But I’ll vote for him anyway over Hillary.”

I believe most expressions of human vulnerabilty increase, rather than decrease, our sense of admiration for public figures. When President Obama wept during his gun control speech earlier this year, it humanized him in the eyes of many people who see the president, occasionally, as a cold, Spock-like figure. And Joe Biden, in speaking of the loss of his son Beau, frequently tears up, a condition that I can personally attest makes audience members break nearly in two. At the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer, where I saw the Vice-president discuss the “Cancer Moon Shot” project in highly personal terms, it was all I could do to keep from leaping toward the stage in hopes of giving the man a hug. (I am certain that the Secret Service agents on hand were grateful for my sense of restraint.)

There are, of course, a few examples of politicians who have perhaps — overshared. My heart went out to Lyndon Johnson after his gall bladder operation, but I didn’t need to have him show me the giant scar across his giant blobby man-belly. And the video footage of President George H.W. Bush’s throwing up on the Japanese prime minister is something that I’d have been glad to have been spared. (Japanese slang has, unforgivably, incorporated this moment into the language: a fit of nausea is known as bushasuru.)

Howard Dean, for his part, was driven from the presidential race in 2004 after an exultant yell, a moment that critics used to suggest that he was somehow unbalanced. For the life of me, however, I’ve never been able to understand why the “Dean scream” became such an issue. Twelve years later, we now have a candidate who calls Mexicans rapists, who says that the President is the founder of ISIS, who ridicules the handicapped, and yet his popularity soars. Compared to all this, wasn’t the Dean scream a harmless moment of joy? If it was 2016, rather than 2004, I suspect that Dean’s campaign might have triumphed by featuring more screams, not fewer.

Hillary Clinton will have plenty of time to think about all this this week as she takes a couple days off to recover from pneumonia. (Campaign officials report that she has cancelled a scheduled trip to California). I hope that, as she eats her chicken soup and gets a little sleep, maybe binges on a little Netflix, that she swiftly regains the strength she needs to get through the final two months of this endless campaign. She was right in 2008: this isn’t easy. What we want in the months ahead, above all, is to see all the ways in which this is true. What we need, from both candidates is more humanity, not less.

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