IN MOST ALL OF THE POST-DEBATE coverage of Tuesday night's televised Ohio cage match between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, so much focused on the candidates' nitpicking over NAFTA, trade and health care that the larger point was overlooked: that this could have been, in fact will most likely be, the last time we will ever see Clinton in a presidential debate (at least this cycle). And, frankly, it doesn't come soon enough for me. What we were watching for those last 90 minutes was, if things hold, the curtain closing on the entire Clinton Era.

With her national support now officially sagging to second place in the polls, with her firewalls crumbling in the must-win states of Texas and Ohio, and with those obscure but jittery superdelegates now slowly but surely jumping her sinking ship, Hillary's resignation from the race after next Tuesday's primaries now looms as a real possibility.

So you'd think that on the night that could, in fact, be her swan song, we might have seen something graceful, or dare we say even grand, from someone who, after all, was first lady for eight years and then became America's first viable female candidate for president in history. Yes, she thought her nomination inevitable, and now stands precariously perched on the brink of dismal defeat, but is unremitting bitterness really the best public posture? Can't she leave us with some sort of inspiring vision, something — excuse the cliché — bigger than herself to hang on to? But all those vaunted 35 years of public service that Clinton loves to boast about have not instilled her with any sense of nobility, but have rather, apparently, only shriveled her soul.

Even at the level of immediate political expediency, it seemed abundantly clear that the lagging Clinton's only real hope Tuesday night was to rise above the fray, enlarge herself, and take a final stab at convincing Democrats that all her experience and toughness and steely-eyed hardheadedness are really worth considering in a president.

Instead, the debate ran like an endless-loop 90-minute infomercial on why Clinton is losing. And why she will be remembered, precisely, as a loser. Instead of a more appropriate grander gesture, we were treated to a nonstop display of pugnacious hectoring, a torrent of peevish, picayune and intellectually dishonest bickering and parsing.

It's one heckuva way to possibly exit the national stage. It's as if someone like Gore Vidal chose the latest Penthouse Forum for his last public reading.

It's taken me a decade, and I'm still stumped trying to figure out what the meaning of is might really be. And yet Hillary tossed us the latest Clintonesque head-scratcher during the debate when she asked me — and the millions watching — to ponder the “difference between denouncing and rejecting.”

I'm not sure which one of these acts of contrition her rival Barack Obama engaged in when asked by the moderators his view on the Reverend Louis Farrakhan — one of those by-the-book media ploys to hang a racialized albatross around a minority candidate's neck. (Why aren't pro-Israeli politicians, for example, ever asked to denounce, or reject, the excesses of Jewish fundamentalist groups that engage in violence in the occupied territories?) Anyway, Obama repeated for the cameras a rituallike denunciation of Farrakhan as an anti-Semite. But that wasn't enough for Senator Clinton, who demanded he also reject the loony Reverend.

Did someone recently say this is the “silly season”? The flurry of political absurdities broke out early in the match, when universal health care was the opening topic. Though Obama has adamantly campaigned on that promise from his first day on the stump, he is actually opposed to universal health care. At least, according to Clinton, who belabored the point for the first, torturous 16 minutes of the debate.

After repeatedly ignoring pleas from moderator Brian Williams to curtail her health-care harangue, after extending and re-extending her remarks, after interrupting once and again Williams and co-moderator Tim Russert so that she could pontificate on and mercilessly spin every nuance of the issue, Clinton then portrayed herself as a hapless victim of media bias by comparing Williams' questioning to a satirical sketch based on her that aired over the weekend. “Well, could I just point out that in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time? And I don't mind,” she said with a grimace. “You know, I'll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious. And if anybody saw Saturday Night Live, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow.”

And so it went on for the rest of the evening. A garish display of the void in our political life, a startling demonstration of how empty even our most “experienced,” most veteran, best-financed political figures are at the core. Strip away the understandable veneer of rhetoric and situational tactics, and underneath you find only more situational tactics.

After an hour and a half, nothing had happened to really change things. Obama's rising tide was hardly stemmed by a few smart-aleck potshots. The debate ended and the stage went dark. It was over. Really over.

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