Hillary Clinton has often benefited from the general awfulness of the sort of lunatic critics who fill my inbox with ravings about how she’s had people (and pets) killed in the past and, if elected, intends to pack the Supreme Court with lesbian socialists. And to the self-styled “Clinton expert’’ whose most recent mass e-mail began, “Hillary Clinton Linked to Electile Dysfunction in Swing Voters,’’ all I can say is: Are you a plant? Such tacky attacks clearly work in Clinton’s favor, and tend to inspire feelings of solidarity, even among women who are not huge fans of her work. Galling as it must be to her, Clinton does have a history of gaining support while in victim mode—post-Monica and post-Iowa; after Rick Lazio, her Republican opponent, invaded her space at a senatorial campaign debate in 2000; and after she came close to tears in New Hampshire this January.

Because Barack Obama is generally well tolerated across the ideological spectrum, even among those who would never vote for him, he gets no such sympathy support. Indeed, refusing to see himself as a victim is crucial to his broad appeal. Yet it’s instructive to look at the people he’s upsetting, too—especially because his most scathing critics happen to be people with whom he wholeheartedly agrees.

The New York State chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), for instance, threw a big fat prefeminist fit over the news that Ted Kennedy was endorsing Obama: “Women have just experienced the ultimate betrayal!’’ the group claimed in a mailing. “Senator Kennedy’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton’s opponent in the Democratic presidential primary campaign has really hit women hard. Women have forgiven Kennedy, stuck up for him, stood by him.... And now the greatest betrayal! We are repaid with his abandonment! He’s picked the new guy over us.’’

Truly, I had not seen this many exclamation points since I read Donna Hanover’s book about how great life is as the former Mrs. Rudolph Giuliani. (In brief, it is great!) So when I saw the blast from NOW, my first thought was the same as when I’d heard that a couple of guys had yelled “Iron my shirts!’’ at Hillary Clinton during a campaign event a few weeks earlier: surely this was a hoax. But unlike the kids clamoring for medium starch—who, as it turned out, were pulling a prank for a radio show—the NOW meltdown was for real.

As, of course, was Gloria Steinem’s New York Times op-ed, in which she became the first to publicly inject race into the presidential campaign, by noting that “black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).’’

Just as my children often preface their most offensive remarks with, “No offense, but...,’’ when Steinem insists, “I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest,’’ what she really means is: I am advocating a competition for who has it toughest.

But contrary to Clinton’s misleading campaign ads, Obama’s position on abortion rights is indistinguishable from her own, so why would women for whom that is the issue be so beside themselves over his possible nomination? Is it really his gender that’s such an outrage? Maybe, but these are not merely straight-up statements of support for their preferred candidate; on the contrary, they are so overwrought, so willing to stoop to emotional blackmail that you’d swear somebody’s power within the Democratic Party was at stake.

And, to me, these overreactions do suggest that perhaps the abortion lobby takes Obama at his word when he promises to eschew business-as-usual, interest-group politics. Even if he did nothing more than make good on his promise to change the combative (and, for them, lucrative) tenor of the debate, wouldn’t their fundraising suffer as a result? Would the status quo be on its way out if Obama got in?

More evidence that it might work that way—and that this is a question not so much of race versus gender as of entrenched power versus a whole new day—is that instead of firing back in Obama’s defense, establishment black powerbrokers made clear that they, too, are affronted by him. Civil-rights hero John Lewis went out of his way to be condescending, saying Obama “is not Martin Luther King. I knew Martin Luther King. I knew Bobby Kennedy. I knew President Kennedy. You need more than speech-making.’’ New York Congressman Charlie Rangel gratuitously brought up Obama’s youthful drug use. And Andrew Young went beyond any of the others—“beyond the beyonds’’ as my Southern grandmother would have said. When asked if he wanted Obama to be president, Young answered yes, he does, but not until after Hillary’s second term is up in 2016: “Hillary Clinton first of all has Bill behind her and Bill is every bit as black as Barack. He’s probably gone with more black women than Barack.’’

Since there is zero case to be made that the election of Obama would not be a giant step toward the realization of Dr. King’s long-deferred dream, the only logical conclusion is that these guys, too, feel threatened. Which is quite an endorsement of Obama as someone who might actually mix things up in Washington.

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of PoliticsDaily.com.
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Published in the 2008-02-29 issue: View Contents
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