Hillary Clinton, FiveThirtyEight tells us, is the most dominant debate winner in recent presidential history. They did all that ciphering they do over there and decided she won her three debates by +71, the highest score going back to 2000. She did it by being well prepared, yes. But she also did it, and bigly, by just standing there and taking his crap.
God bless the split screen; as he spoke, I kept my eyes fixed on her face, to see if she flinched when he said she belonged in jail and the rest. Not once. And she proved unflappable again, and even more so, Thursday night at the Al Smith Dinner. He was so obnoxious. He didn’t just cross the line; he crawled into a cannon and catapulted himself over it. She hates Catholics? Really? At a Catholic event? There was hardly a joke to it at all (the embedded joke, such as it was, had to do with emails among Catholic aides, but nothing Clinton had ever said or done). It was awful.
And there she sat, smiling, laughing, cool as you please. People ask why she’s winning, and the usual answer is that Trump is such a catastrophe. And he is, obviously. But I say she’s winning mainly because she’s one tough dame. She’s made of steel. And not Trumpian Chinese steel. And even though she’s going to face a wall of total resistance from Congress if she’s president, I say history tells us not to sell this woman short.
I’ve seen it for years. I’ve covered her on and off for 17 years, when she first went up to New York to run for Senate. All these alpha males were supposed to bury her. First, the tabloid New York media (a metaphorical alpha male) was supposed to eat her alive. And it took some bites out of her, no doubt about that. Especially Murdoch’s Post, and especially in those early months of the race, in 1999, when she kissed Suha Arafat. But in time, she neutralized them. The Post never warmed to her during that campaign, God knows, but the Daily News did (it endorsed her), and she learned how to anticipate the tabs’ rhythms and return their best serves.
Then Rudy Giuliani was supposed to crush this carpetbagger. He left the race in the spring of 2000 for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with her. It was about his prostate cancer diagnosis. But by the time he dropped out, she’d been running a better campaign than he had (he could hardly be bothered to go upstate) and she was a couple points up in most polls. You might think he’d have beaten her in the end, but I can tell you he didn’t think so: He might deny this now, but he told me himself December 2000 that he didn’t think he’d have won, mainly because Al Gore beat George W. Bush by 1.7 million votes in the state, and Rudy didn’t believe he could have wooed enough ticket-splitters to overcome that. Clinton 2, alpha males 0.
Rick Lazio wasn’t exactly an alpha male, but after he got in the race, Clinton was in an important sense running against the whole vast right-wing conspiracy she had so famously named on the Today show two years before. Tons of national right-wing money was thrown at stopping her, heavyweights came in to campaign against her, and the New York State Republican Party made robocalls linking Clinton to the terrorists who’d just bombed the USS Cole in Yemen (yes, they did; don’t ask). They all thought they could bully her. But in the end it was she who conquered them. They went too far, got hysterical (imagine if she, a woman, had done that). She stayed steady as a rock.
Next up was Trent Lott, Mississippian, consorter, shall we say, with white supremacist groups, and at the time the Senate majority leader. After Clinton won, he—the leader of the United States Senate, a body that fetishizes decorum, far more so in those days—said: “I tell you one thing, when this Hillary gets to the Senate, if she does—maybe lightning will strike and she won’t—she will be one of 100, and we won’t let her forget it.”
And she? In the face of the boss at her new workplace wishing that she’d be struck by lightning, she said nothing and got to work. Within two years, most Republican senators were working with her and marveling that she was a pretty decent human being after all—Sam Brownback once publicly admitted he had hated her and asked for her apology to her face, which she of course graciously accepted. And into the bargain, she was someone who could really hold her liquor. Three-nil.
Oh, there were plenty others, before and since. Back in her first lady days, Ken Starr, and Bill Safire of the Times, and Fred Thompson, and Al D’Amato, and Michael Chertoff—every one of them was going to bring her down. They’re now deceased (Safire), disgraced (Starr), retired from public service (D’Amato and Thompson), or endorsing her (Chertoff). She’s the one who’s standing.
And now, she’s two-plus weeks away from becoming the first woman president of the United States. Imagine what she’s been through. Some of it, yes, she brought on herself; the email server, the speeches, some aspects of the foundation story. But most of it has been a cabal of ideologues who’ve been trying and failing for 25 years to put her in jail. And in two months and 28 days, unless something goes really kablooey, she’ll be standing up there becoming president.
All the predictions are grim for the post-inaugural period: She’ll have no mandate, and Republican opposition will be implacable because they’ll know that if they can bring her numbers down by 2018 they can romp in the midterms. For the most part I share this view. But I look back over the carcasses she’s left behind of men who were supposed to dominate her and I think just maybe she’ll figure something out.
Donald Trump, who lies when he says “and” and “the,” has said one true thing in these last 16 months. She is tough. Tougher than he is. And tougher than all the men who’ve tried to thwart her, and those about to attempt the job.