Hillary and the Invisible Women

Hillary Clinton's run-up to the Texas and Ohio primaries was the political equivalent of Hell Week for a Navy SEAL. At least it felt that way for the reporters who'd been participating in this killing Democratic marathon since the Iowa caucuses in January and now, dosed up on Airborne and bad coffee, were covering what was being billed as Hillary's last stand.

As a campaign virgin who joined the press bus on Saturday morning in Ft. Worth, Texas, I was staggered by how isolated accompanying reporters actually are most of the time. It's like being trapped in a moving bathysphere. You can't buy newspapers or watch TV in real time. Occasionally, as you fall into your seat on a plane hop from Dallas to Columbus, Ohio, wanly clutching a boxed panini, you catch a glimpse of a familiar large, frosted head in the first-class section that's rumored to belong to the candidate. She doesn't come back much to visit the press, except for the odd bright-eyed moment of managed conviviality. One senses a moment of trepidation on the flight from Cleveland to Toledo: "I intend to do as well as I can on Tuesday and we will see what happens after that."

The Hillary coterie up front in the plane always includes the stylish brunette Huma Abedin, a.k.a. the "body person" who maintains the senator's power wardrobe and unfailingly fresh appearance. Sometimes the candidate is joined by friends and endorsers. Ted Danson and his wife, Mary Steenburgen, show up for some Ohio gigs and are surprisingly effective, especially Steenburgen: "I looked at my friend Bill 30 years ago and I thought, If there is anything inherently healthy in the universe, you should be president one day. And I looked at Hillary and thought, 'Wow, do I dare to dream?' " Chelsea, Hillary's no-longer-secret weapon, joins the flight on the eve of Election Day, visibly lifting her mother's mood. The warmth and complicity between them is evident as they crack open a bottle of wine and squeeze hands together in the first-class cabin. Chelsea, 28, is all soft power to her mother's pre-emptive strike. There is steel beneath Chelsea's girlish charm.

The grueling, brutal pace Hillary maintains (14 cities in four days) even sets a pace for the younger Senator Obama. Perhaps she deserves to prevail simply because she's tougher—tougher than the media following ashen-faced in her wake, and clearly tougher than the other Democratic and Republican candidates who've already gone down in flames. Let no one dispute the grit of a woman willing to get up at 4 a.m. on a Monday in time to deliver doughnuts to workers on a shift change at the Chrysler plant in Toledo. Refreshed by the excursion, she then summons the bleary-eyed reporters and camera crews down to an impromptu "press avail" in the hotel lobby, where she coolly defenestrates Obama on his economic adviser's "wink wink" double- speak about NAFTA. Back on the plane a photographer pins up a sign over his seat: DON'T CALL ME AT 3 A.M.

The press will always feel Hillary's fierce, historic mistrust—and who can blame her? ABC's Kate Snow tells me that members of the public often bear down on her when they see her TV mike, cursing her out as a stand-in for Tim Russert, even though he is at NBC. "They feel we're the people taking her down," she said.

Perhaps this explains the Clinton advance team's puzzling decision, discovered when we arrived in Austin, Texas, on Monday afternoon, to have the press file from a men's locker room. Laptops were set up cheek by jowl with a wall of urinals, prompting raucous cries of: "Now we really know this campaign is in the toilet!" Reporters were supposed to view Hillary's electronic town hall with 800 Texas voters on an overhead TV monitor via Fox Sports Southwest—a curious choice of outlet based, apparently, on the cheapness of the media buy. (Or maybe it was a cunning strategy to alienate male voters expecting a Houston Astros spring-training game.)

As we awaited the town hall, we could look up at the overhead TV with the sound off. CNN's Wolf Blitzer was standing in front of a map, informing Americans of something—what? Then came images of an exhortatory Barack Obama. There was a rumor flying around out there that thousands of people were attending his rallies. How could this be when we on the Solutions for America campaign knew Hillary Clinton was going to win?

Here's the good part about the meta-madness of living in the campaign bubble. Sitting on the press bus learning nothing makes you especially receptive, when you get off at a pit stop, to learning everything—to feeling with heightened keenness the raw charge of churning humanity, unfiltered through polls and belligerent media noise. It allows you, finally, to see the candidate through the voters' eyes, and to realize how resolutely effective, how inspiringly pedestrian Hillary Clinton is.

Campaigning in places like Cleveland, Akron, Dayton and Toledo—communities that have some of the highest foreclosure rates in the country—Hillary manages to fuse her own political survival with her audience's own struggles to get by. NAFTA-gate works wonders for her in places where so many jobs have disappeared.

On Sunday morning there's a "canvas kickoff" in a high-school gym in the predominantly white, small suburban town of Westerville, Ohio, which has FOR SALE signs on every block. She stands with her hardy brown ankle boots planted firmly center stage—the indomitable image of a seasoned, capable 60-year-old woman, handsomely groomed as always in her imperturbable (blue, this time) pantsuit, belting out bread-and-butter positions on health care, No Child Left Behind and college loans. "Yes!" she crescendos. "I've been around for a while, doing this work for 35 years, and I know it's important to have a president in the White House who gets up every single day and worries about your fears, your needs! … We need a fighter, a doer and a champion in the White House!"

If you dialed into the campaign conference call later that day, a platoon of generals told you why they were ready to salute her as commander in chief—so many of them that by the time she walked out on the stage of a school auditorium in Akron, you half expected her to be wearing a Kevlar top. Still, her best role will always be Hillary, the indefatigable student-body president, demanding, insisting that voters grade her for the specifics of her campaign promises: "I want to be in the White House and have you say, 'Well, we heard you in Akron but when are you going to produce those jobs you talked about?' " The scary part is that she means it. At a campaign stop at Herrera's Mexican Restaurant in Dallas on Election Day morning, Dawn Martin, the executive director of a small oceanic conservation society called SeaWeb, buttonholed me: "Hillary understands more about fisheries, climate change and the overall ecosystem in the maritime environment than anyone I know."

Much has been written about how boomer women have rallied to Hillary's cause (she won an impressive 67 percent of the white women voting in Ohio; they were 44 percent of the total). It's fashionable to write off this core element of her base as rabid paleo-feminists fighting the tired old gender wars of the past. But Hillary's appeal to the boomer gals is wider and deeper than that. Cynthia Ruccia, a grass-roots political organizer in Columbus, told me that in these last beleaguered weeks, women started showing up in waves at Clinton headquarters—women who told her they had never volunteered in a campaign before. "There was just an outpouring about the way she was being treated by the media," Ruccia said. "It was something we hadn't seen in a long time. We all felt, as women, we had made a lot of progress, and we saw this as an attack of misogyny that was trying to beat her down."

It's a revolt that has been overdue for a while and has now found its focus in Clinton's candidacy. In 1952, Ralph Ellison's revelatory novel, "Invisible Man," nailed the experience of being black in America. In the relentless youth culture of the early 21st century, if you are 50 and female, the novel that's being written on your forehead every day is "Invisible Woman." All over the country there are vigorous, independent, self-liberated boomer women—women who possess all the management skills that come from raising families while holding down demanding jobs, women who have experience, enterprise and, among the empty nesters, a little financial independence, yet still find themselves steadfastly dissed and ignored. Advertisers don't want them. TV networks dump their older anchorwomen off the air. Hollywood studios refuse to write parts for them. Employers make it clear they'd prefer a "fresh (cheaper) face."

Even Oprah abandoned them when she opted for Obama. Am I alone in suspecting that TV's most powerful 54-year-old woman just might have endorsed him so fast for reasons of desirable viewer demographics as much as personal inspiration? Certainly, no TV diva in her 50s who values her ratings wants to be defined by the hot-flash cohort.

What saddens boomer women who love Hillary is that their twentysomething daughters don't share their view of her heroic role. Instead they've been swept up by that new Barack magic. It's not their fault, and not Hillary's, either. The very scar tissue that older women see as proof of her determination just embarrasses their daughters, killing off for them all the insouciant elation that ought to come with girl power in the White House.

She might have a chance of winning them over yet, if she set about dividing the Obama girls from the Obama boys. Maybe start with some mother and daughter rallies in Pennsylvania, summoning an audience that would mirror the winning image of Chelsea onstage at her side on Tuesday night in Ohio.

It's worth a try—because there is still romance to the idea of a woman in the White House, spattered and compromised though Hillary's candidacy might be.

It was hard not to be caught up in the euphoria at the Columbus Athenaeum when her primary results started to come in. I found myself jammed between two exultant Columbus ladies, a high-fiving yoga-studio owner in her 50s and a human resources director of a software company roughly the same age. They were raising the roof along with the band to the old 1965 McCoys hit "Hang on Sloopy."

For all the invisible women, it's the only anthem they've got. And for their sake alone, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton should not give up the fight.