Nashua, New Hampshire — So it’s another gym in another community college, the arena of all American political hopes and fears. The same layout, the polished floor marked for basketball, the screens hanging from the bare-block walls, the makeshift stage, the bleachers on three sides, the scarlet ropelines. It’s Sunday morning in Nashua, New Hampshire, a grey day with snow coming up from Boston. The press section of the hall wraps around the public section in the centre, dwarfs it — the organisers are wisely cautious about how many people will rock out in rural NH, even for the star candidate. And they’re realistic about what sort of press there’ll be, with camera crews from Japan, Russia, Europe streaming in, gabbling to each other incomprehensibly.
The big beasts are here too, for this last campaign appearance of the last live election of the Obama era — Maggie Haberman of POLITICO, and Joe Klein of Time and author of Primary Colors (the novel in which the racist perfidy of a Clinton-like president. impregnating a Southern rural black man’s daughter and framing someone else for it, prompts the suicide from despair of a veteran political mentor) and perhaps not Hillary’s favourite person in the world.
Local news anchors chat to each other, vacant-faced men glowing in TV make-up, tissues flapping from their collars. Over at the mixing desk a young assistant is taking “Excalibur” — the mixtape CD — from its case, cueing it up, old skool. Lovingly crafted over years, picking up a song here, dropping one there (with Democrats it’s about mood, with Republicans, the song lasts until the artist hears about it, and then bans further use), like a lounge bar crooner’s repertoire.
“Hillary’s late,” a press flak announces. “She’s coming up the interstate, she’ll be here soon.” The hubbub is rising in the press bleachers, herded in two hours early, tick tacking Twitter and email, too whacked to read a paper or a tablet: “Will she announce? When will she announce? Will she certainly run? Of course she’ll run. Maybe she won’t run. When will she announce?”
Mixtape kicks in, and it’s that bright, powered-up guitars, wall-of-sound, in the day we sweat it out on the nights of a runaway American dream … Yes the first song of Hil’s new mixtape is “Born To Run”. It’s subtle as. We’re running half an hour late.
There’s hubbub as the public are let in, it’s all happening at once, you wouldn’t be surprised if red, white and blue balloons fell from the ceiling, and suddenly we’re all swung round, and a small neat blonde woman in a suit is working the press section. There’s a momentary flurry of excitement that it’s Hillary, but no it’s Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire Governor, and part of the all-female Democrat team up for election — governor, Senator Jeanne Shaheen and House reps Carol Shea-Porter and Ann McLane Kuster — that Hillary’s come to stump for (and, let’s face it, vice versa). God knows why she’s doing this, because it creates chaos as her security detail moves around, knocking over tripods, bee-lining for local media, past the big boys to the 19-year-old from the Keene Despatch, etc. It goes both ways, a Japanese crew, looking for the best place to get a Hillary shot have no idea who she is, knock her half-flying. The public — the usual Sunday NH crowd — looked like they dressed for duck hunting, or getting the SUV out of a pothole and just decided hell, they might go and hear the next president of the United States speak — turn and watch the chaos slowly, photoing, the photographers photographing Maggie Hassan.
After doing three stand-ups bang-bang-bang, which pretty much covers the whole state, talking about voting New Hampshire for New Hampshire, throw out the carpetbaggers, protect Medicare, Obamacare, women’s reproductive rights, push for a minimum wage, etc etc — and then she comes down to the rope-line and is besieged by petitioners: “My dad’s a veteran up in the North Country”, “Obamacare threw me off the rolls, and I can’t get health insurance”. Her entourage is conferring with their eyes, wadda we do, trying to move her on, but to do so now would be a political disaster.
This is getting out of control, and after 10 minutes, they’ve burrowed through the crowd on the floor to make an informal barrier, and away she goes, as the chair of the Democratic Committee starts the morning off: “Thank you for coming to this historical rally, the first all-woman ticket in our country’s history” — which is, OK, that’s impressive, that’s a thing. But it’s still chaos. Flaks are conferring. The backwoods has all got a bit backwoodsy and, well, real.
Wasn’t meant to be this way. Like all Hillary events, like all mainstream Democrat events, this has a slight air of the simulacra about it, a reversal of the relationship between public and media. I don’t think the public much notice it — not till later anyway — as they are contained and decanted like hogs going through a run over the course of the three hours, but it is unmistakeable, and a small forecast of what we are up for in ‘16.
The Obama rolling wave in ‘08 had a different feel, a looseness, a funkiness, at which the media happened to be present. Bigger crowds, longer guest list, rappers, actors, comedians, civil rights heroes, and Obama channelling the full MLK act, the full rolling thunder revue. By ‘16, it will be back to the full Democratic machine again, the slight air of dutiful deadness. There will have to be a challenger, not only for a Left voice, but for Hillary’s sake, otherwise it will feel like the rise to power of Konstantin Chernenko.
“In 2016, Hillary may face one or two Democrat contenders, but a veritable hill-tribe of diminutive Republicans, very much divided on national security, wars, voter ID, immigration reform and all and all, and Hillary will simply run as a Democrat who will not let the empire fall …”
But now, there’s a bit of life, we’re kicking off with the locals, state senators, city councillors even, all women, except for one amiable goatteed fatty doing some of the introducing duties. This rally was scheduled for weeks earlier, and then cancelled for the birth of her granddaughter, Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky — that’s President Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky, 50th president of the United States to you — but that’s fortuitous, because it makes a perfect end-stop, jumping off-point, handover.
Furthermore, it’s in a state which, this year, has become a bellwether. Though New Hampshire is hardly typical, demographically — if it were any whiter, it’d be an Ebola patient, or an episode of Home and Away — it has become typical politically tending Democrat, but leaning back into Republican territory, out of all sorts of disappointment and pissed-offness — with a sluggish recovery, with the hamfisted implementation of Obamacare and here, the most libertarian state in New England, with moves on guns. There’s also concern about illegal immigrants — not Canadians; Hispanics are moving north from Boston and New York in numbers, though the numbers of “illegals” are derisory by other standards — and with crime, Manchester, the major city, having become a place where meth- and smack-heads drive in to do a quick armed robbery, and then hustle out again to the backwoods.
This mix of state and federal issues means that the local Democrats have to fight on multiple and moving fronts. But the main target is Scott Brown, former male pin-up model and trucking businessman, and former US senator for Massachusetts for two years, when he snuck in, winning a special election for the late Ted Kennedy’s seat, due to Democrat malaise. Turfed out again, he moved across the border to his holiday home to run in New Hampshire. That he’s giving Democrat incumbent Jeanne Shaheen trouble is a testament to Democrat malaise. “We don’t want Scott Brown coming over the border and then going down to Washington to caucus with the Tea Party!” Shea-Porter yells to huge cheers. But then there’s a bigger cheer, and to the left of her, Hillary has suddenly appeared.
Charisma is charisma. All these women look pretty much alike, brisk, middle-aged business-like style, but Hillary Clinton — sorry, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as she is now once again being introduced — has that glow, the very opposite of a newsman’s patina. It’s that of power, and purpose, a projection onto her of the hopes and aspirations of all the people here (about 65% women by my rough head count, something of a reversal of the usual gender ratio), personified and then sent back to them. When she takes the mike, there’s no doubt that the Springsteen intro is the right one. She’s the boss.
Hillary — what should one call her? Clinton is confusing, Hillary too familiar. Rodham Clinton would be ridiculous, it will have to be Hillary — Hillary has a speaking style which stands out, makes you realise how wooden everyone else is. It’s authoritative, but warm, it’s relaxed and folksy, but in command. It got her into trouble the previous week — “y’know” she said, “corporations say they create jobs but they don’t create jobs” and then went on to a standard view on macroeconomics. But it’s the first bit that got wide airplay, folksy, friendly, and for her enemies, a measure of the old Saul Alinsky socialist blah blah. Here, there’s grandchildren talk: “makes you think” and “what are we doing for future generations?”, and then, some twitting of Brown’s numerous gaffes about where things are in New Hampshire, stuff that Hillary has researched in the limo up there, shout outs to women everywhere, then this:
“I’ve been criss-crossing the country and I get the feeling from people that things just aren’t working the way they should.”
And then more of a riff on that, and that is … well, that is Hillary Clinton running against Barack Obama.
It was always going to be thus, but it’s started pretty early. Mind you, it’s not directly against Obama — because amazingly, in the whole rally, the name of the President is not invoked once — but that’s the clear intent. Because in 2016, Hillary may face one or two Democrat contenders, but a veritable hill-tribe of diminutive Republicans, very much divided on national security, wars, voter ID, immigration reform and all and all, and Hillary will simply run as a Democrat who will not let the empire fall, ie as an Eisenhower Republican, resuming the American narrative, after an eight-year interregnum. That is a mainstream narrative, it’s a working and middle-class narrative, but it’s above all a white narrative, a message of reassurance. It’s being tried out on a liberal white crowd here, but it’s going to be used in the South and Midwest, and if the GOP can’t unite behind a candidate and their worldview, then 2016 would be a Demassacre of the Republicans. She walks the speech through global women’s rights, Citizens United, the Tea Party, and then brings it all together with her granddaughter.
“She is already very lucky … but her greatest luck is to have been born in the USA!” and this liberal crowd lose it, cheer it to the rafters, as she goes out to Beautiful Girl (“suddenly I see/this is what I want to be!”). The press jump for the buses and vans, flinging folding chairs as they scarper. In five minutes, it’s another empty gym, American emblem. In 24 hours, the end of the Obama era begins, and so does the 2016 US presidential race.