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The Clinton Machine Will Not Go Easily Into the Night

Did longtime Clinton family bagman Terry McAuliffe nail it late Tuesday night just moments after the networks called New Hampshire for Hillary Clinton? “It was that humanizing moment yesterday,” a jubilant McAuliffe told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, referring to Hillary Clinton’s much-televised tearing up as she complained what an unrecognized burden it’s been for the last 35 years fighting for All Those Little People.

Is that what it has come to? A vulnerable Hillary weeping and a red-faced Hubby Bill angrily wagging his finger that all the talk in the media about Obama representing real change is but a “fairy tale”? Or maybe we should throw in Hillary dredging up Osama at the last minute? Or the dirty-tricks whispering campaign that Obama wasn’t really pro-choice? Or that his position on the same war that Hillary authorized was somehow hypocritical? Or the shameless union-financed campaign suggesting that Obama, who was fighting for unions while Hillary was litigating for power utilities, was anti-labor?

Or perhaps there are more mundane, more innocent explanations for Hillary’s having defied all the pollsters and pundits by staging one more New Hampshire Clinton comeback. Maybe it was simply the unusually balmy weather that allowed an elevated number of the elderly to trundle to the polls. Add those up, along with the disproportionate vote of unmarried women, and of the lesser-educated, who flocked to Hillary for Heaven-Knows-What-Reason.

None of this to say that there’s a trace of anything devious or underhanded in Clinton’s victory. Hillary won fair and square and against some very tough odds. Democrats who supported Obama — or Edwards — will have to face the nettlesome truth that it was, precisely, a plurality of other Democrats who chose her.

Less than a week before, it sure seemed that Clinton was doomed. When the high school and gymnasium doors opened across Iowa the previous Thursday evening, as the lines of new caucusers poured into the hallways and registration forms for Republicans switching parties started to run out, it felt as if the Clinton Era had finally, thankfully, come to a grinding, sudden halt.

But nothing comes easy. Even Hillary Clinton, in her own perverse and inadvertent way, said it in the final hours of the New Hampshire campaign. Chiding Obama for raising “false hopes” of change, she went on to credit LBJ, not Martin Luther King Jr., for the passage of landmark civil rights laws. “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Clinton told an interviewer. “The power of that dream became real in people’s lives because we had a president who said, ‘We’re going to do it,’ and actually got it done.”

The implication was obvious. Her history, however, was exactly backward. An IQ anywhere near room temperature is sufficient intellect to know that Johnson and the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act only because of fierce, relentless pressure from below. Only because so many were willing to be beaten, fire-hosed, jailed and, in some cases, firebombed was Jim Crow finally scrapped. No thanks to LBJ, but rather in spite of LBJ.

As delightful as the thought might be to some of us, it would have been a tad too easy to have smashed the Clinton machine with one simple blow struck in Des Moines. The combined votes for Barack Obama and John Edwards are undeniable symptoms of a nascent, generation-driven strain to break the current prevailing political paradigm.

Indeed, I found my crusty old self rather moved several times last week as I followed the Obama campaign through Iowa and heard him repeatedly challenge his audience to actively begin the transformation of American politics. As I thumb through my reporter’s notebook from Iowa, I see great wisdom in one of the more piercing passages from Obama’s stump speech. Quoting not LBJ, but rather MLK on what the latter called “the fierce urgency of now,” Obama flashed a wry smile as he stretched his lanky arms on the podium. “Some say Obama has great ideas and a good organization,” he said with a tinge of sarcasm. “They say he just hasn’t been in Washington long enough. He needs to be seasoned and stewed. We need to boil all that hope out of him.”

And then, citing the blood and sweat invested in the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the defeat of fascism and the winning of civil rights, he added, “We’ve never had meaningful change in this country unless somebody, somewhere stood up to do something others said couldn’t be done.”

In the weeks ahead, fortunately, we face nothing so dramatic as Panzer divisions, or even fire hoses, but rather just a couple of moth-eaten political hucksters and their investors. No one has to die or even face down dogs and nightsticks. All they have to do is get off their duffs and get to the polls. And they’ll have to decide if, once again, they will be cowed into voting out of fear. Or choosing change. The fight is on.