Good Grief: Exploiting Bereavement in the '08 Campaign
Throwing in the towel has never looked so sad.
Throwing in the towel has never looked so sad.
Just when I thought the unsavory litany of insults, absurdities and hypocrisies that defined the race for the Democratic presidential nomination could not possibly get any longer, the long goodbye of Hillary Clinton proved me wrong. The Grief Narrative that led up to the New York senator's grin-and-bear-it endorsement of Barack Obama on Saturday just about put me over the top. Yes, we are now moving on. But in the interests of clearing the air—and of tying off one loose end that we can't afford to leave hanging—a brief deconstruction of this particular outrage is in order.
The Grief Narrative seems to have originated in Clinton's camp, as high-level supporters including Charlie Rangel, the Democratic congressman from New York, and former DNC chief and longtime Clinton consigliere Terry McAuliffe, began turning up on cable talk shows in the run-up to the June 3 primaries saying that Hillary Clinton required "the space" to make up her mind about when and how to withdraw from the race. That thread was quickly picked up by some in the mainstream media, who, without a trace of irony, repeated it: Don't push her, she just might crack. The implication that she might crack was, prima facie, absurd: As we learned from the over-long campaign, Hillary Clinton is one of the toughest politicians in U.S. history. "If he can't stand the heat, he should stay out of the kitchen," was one of Clinton's early digs at Obama, back when she believed she could find traction by portraying her rival as a thin-skinned naif.
Yet as the delegate math continued to sound the death knell of Clinton's bid, her supposedly fragile psychological and emotional state required everyone to tiptoe around her. Thus, by the time the jig was officially up, we got the worst motif of all, from a June 7 article in The New York Times describing the sentiment among Clinton's "signature bloc," women of a certain age:
"Many of Mrs. Clinton's female supporters have shared a metaphor to describe letting go of her candidacy," Jodi Kantor wrote in a story that appeared the morning that Sen. Clinton was to give her throw-in-the-towel speech in Washington. "They say they are grieving. They admit shedding tears. And they refer to stages like 'denial,' 'anger' and 'acceptance.'"
That stages-of-grief reference comes, of course, from the groundbreaking work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whose 1969 book, On Death and Dying, neatly and dispassionately categorized the emotional phases experienced by many people who are diagnosed with a terminal illness or those who have lost a loved one. Among the emotional phases are shock/disbelief, bargaining, denial, anger, guilt, depression and acceptance/hope.
For anyone—Democrat, Republican, black, white, brown, rich or poor—who has ever truly grieved, this represents the final insult. Such abuse of the language of psychology (a maligned, misunderstood and misapplied discipline if ever there was one) is particularly insidious in this context.
Think about it: "The Democratic Party must heal," another stages-of-grief motif that emerged in the final hours of Sen. Clinton's campaign, works only if one assumes that the original rift was organic and unavoidable. Like an act of God. Hillary Clinton's attempts to malign the character, motives and sensibility of Sen. Obama were not acts of God. They were—as other writers on The Root have noted—the acts of a white, entitled, fair-weather woman candidate who saw her bid slipping away.
The subtle and not-so-subtle use of class and racial code language during the long, tortuous campaign—primarily by Bill and Hillary Clinton and their supporters—did reveal a rift within the Democratic electorate. But it was not intractable or insurmountable, at least not until those in Hillaryland engaged in a methodical, willful and diabolical attempt to widen and exploit it for their candidate's benefit. Toward the end, Sen. Obama, too, enabled that Hillary-Is-Too-Fragile-for-the-Truth Narrative, likely because he realized that defying it would put him in the untenable (if incorrect) position of the Insensitive Black Man. Sen. Obama will have to repair that rift, a task that I suspect he is more than equipped to accomplish. But it would have been helpful if that energy could be directed to other crucial areas, like wooing moderate Republicans, in the months before the general election. Now he's got to split his time and energy, in that regard, and for that we can thank Hillary, Bill and the creepy Mark Penn.
It was telling that California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is the one who orchestrated the "secret meeting" that Sens. Clinton and Obama held late last week. (And wasn't it delicious to see how they outsmarted the gnats in the national press corps? Talk about entitlement: That racially homogenous group of smug scribblers, too, should be taken to task for engaging in the worst kinds of hypocritical behavior throughout the campaign season, i.e., unquestioningly swallowing and regurgitating, again and again, the shifting anti-Obama narratives cooked up by the Clintons. Thank the Lord for the few bona fide, experienced off-the-bus journalists still working in this business—and I especially mean Kevin Merida at The Washington Post: He truly embarrassed the campaign reporters by bothering to ask Obama campaign workers around the nation a simple question: Have you experienced any racism out on the streets?)
Back to Feinstein, and to the unseemly, inexcusable abuse of the language of psychology: Many people forget how Feinstein first came to national prominence, but as a native San Franciscan, I remember it well. On Nov. 27, 1978, a deranged former San Francisco city and county supervisor named Dan White climbed through a back window at City Hall and shot and killed the mayor, George Moscone, in a room adjacent to the mayor's office. Then he made his way down a hall, into another office, and shot and killed Supervisor Harvey Milk. In other words, they were assassinated.
Feinstein, at the time the first woman president of the Board of Supervisors, took over as mayor. She was subsequently elected (becoming the first woman to be elected mayor of San Francisco) and re-elected, then made a failed bid, in the early 1990s, for the governorship. (Had she won, she would have been the first woman governor of California.) If any sitting Democratic senator knows about: A) the language of psychology, B) the utter inappropriateness of mentioning the word "assassination" in the context of any political campaign, as Clinton did more than once, and C) the many ways that sexism and misogyny can hamper the progress of women in politics and society, it would be Dianne Feinstein.
I can't be sure, but I suspect Sen. Feinstein, like many of us, was not interested in perpetuating the Grief Narrative, in terms of allowing Sen. Clinton to continue her bid. And now, maybe she will hold a reception for the high-profile, big-money women in Hillaryland and share with them what she knows about the kind of loss that legitimately inspires grief.
Amy Alexander, the Alfred A. Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute, is writing a book about race and media.