Hillary’s crucial curtain call

BOSTON — I didn’t make it to Denver. A death in the family kept me close to home where words like healing, closure, catharsis — those theme songs of the convention — took on a whole different meaning.

This was the first convention I missed since 1972 when I was sent to Miami as a younger reporter because there was a “women’s story” brewing and they needed one. I was there when Shirley Chisholm’s run for the presidency turned into a sprint for the vice presidency. She won more delegates’ hearts than votes.

I was there in 1984 as well, just after Geraldine Ferraro sent goose bumps of possibility across the country, saying “American history is about doors being opened.” We were sure it was a beginning.

And I was there in 1992, in the aftermath of the Clarence Thomas hearings when angry women energized the Year of the Woman, sending four new women to the Senate. The same year Hillary Clinton made her debut and her audition tape as the favorite target of the right wing.

This time I watched history as a civilian. This time, Clinton’s loss — nearly as close as Milorad Cavic’s to Michael Phelps — shared the attention with Obama’s win.

Every commentator chewed on the same question: Could Hillary deliver her supporters? Every pollster gummed the same numbers: Only 42 percent of Clinton’s supporters were solidly behind Obama. Working-class white women between 39 and 50 weren’t yet on board. What could/should/must Hillary do short of threatening to jump from the roof of the convention if they didn’t move to Obama?

This convention seemed more like the last act of the primary than the opening act of the election. Democrats had provided nearly all the drama of this season, an 18-month run, a narrative with two compelling leads, a race between two people to open the door of history. A door that could only admit one at a time.

For the first time, the woman checked off the box of experience. And watched it reframed as “old politics.” A thoughtful, eloquent Obama won the mantle of change from the woman who had always been its Rorschach test. The primary revealed fissures just below the calm surface of race, gender and generations.

Even the Republicans held fast to this riveting narrative. The party that had drooled at the prospect of running against Sen. Clinton held Hillary Happy Hours for her supporters and fueled their grievances. The McCain campaign ran television ads straight from the primary script, wooing Hillary supporters even while she said, “I’m Hillary Clinton, and I do not approve that message.”

I was not surprised to see the tenacity of this story line. However many speakers talked about the 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, the ceiling is in place. While polls say that women now feel it’s more likely to have a woman president in the future, older women wonder, “In my lifetime?”

Michelle Obama offered a pitch-perfect speech, ending in a display of courage appreciated by every parent — allowing her daughters before an open mic. But it was hard not to notice that the only female running “mate” was again describing herself as wife, daughter, mother. Another woman keeping her edge under wraps and her law degree in her hip pocket.

Some women listening to Hillary’s powerful speech heard more reasons to be disappointed. What we know about the “sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits” is that women need a farm team. The real gender gap is an ambition gap. Not enough women imagine themselves running for office and so do not run for office. But what we also know is that you can use disappointment to self-destruct or reconstruct.

“Were you in this campaign just for me?” asked Hillary. It’s hard to believe that in the end many Hillary voters will turn to McCain. What kind of revenge is it to vote for a man who doesn’t believe in women as moral decision-makers on the thorny issue of abortion? What kind of feminist statement to vote for a man who did not vote for equal pay for equal work? To the No Obamas, to the PUMAs (Party Unity My A—) who made more noise than news, she replied, “No way, no how, no McCain.”

Hillary’s speech was the curtain call of this drama. Near the end, the senator offered a long view. “My mother was born before women could vote,” she said. “My daughter got to vote for her mother for president.” That, for the moment, is history enough.

Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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