Hillary Clinton’s historic moment: More ‘gee whiz’ than ‘wow’

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is joined by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., as she speaks during a campaign rally at Florida International University Panther Arena in Miami last week. AP/Mary Altaffer

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is joined by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., her vice presidential pick, as she speaks during a campaign rally at Florida International University Panther Arena in Miami last week. AP/Mary Altaffer

PHILADELPHIA — We are about to witness the first acceptance speech from the first woman ever nominated for president by a major American political party.

Yes, Thursday evening will offer history in the making. Speech after convention hall speech has emphasized this. Now and again, when the moment takes hold, we’ve even seen tears trail down the faces of a few female delegates.

But as a watershed cultural event, something is missing. A “wow” factor filled Denver that night in 2008 when Barack Obama became the first African-American accepted the nomination for president. In this City of Sisterly Love, we appear to be headed for a “gee whiz” moment.

Michelle Obama may have alluded to one reason for an enthusiasm gap in a Monday speech here that drew heavily on her family’s life in the White House fish bowl. “Because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters,” the first lady said, “now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”

Perhaps many of us have become so familiar with the possibility that, now that a female presidency is within a November vote of actually happening, we are already somewhat blasé to the reality.

There are other factors, of course.

“It’s complicated, I think, for several reasons. Including the fact that it’s Hillary Clinton,” said Gail Buckner, a former state lawmaker from Clayton County.

Buckner is 65, three years younger than Clinton.

“It is a generational thing,” Buckner said. “When I was elected to the House of Representatives in 1991, and I walked into that male bastion, it was riveting to see how many men in that body were still trying to figure out how women got the right to vote.”

Upon moving into the White House two years later, Hillary Clinton became a first lady with portfolio. Her advocacy of health care legislation, while ultimately a failure, was unprecedented.

”Ever since that day, she’s been a target for those folks who can’t accept the fact that a woman can accomplish major political initiatives,” Buckner said.

Math, you see, is another reason that Obama’s nomination was considered transformative, while Hillary Clinton’s moment is likely to be judged much less so.

Democrats enjoy the loyalty of perhaps 95 percent of African-Americans. As a group, women are split roughly in half between the two major parties, though they list slightly to the Democratic side.

“That is actually dampening the excitement for her. Republican women are not going to take pride – they have been primed not to like her since 1992,” said Andra Gillespie, the Emory University political scientist, who was at the Republican convention in Cleveland, too.

Clinton is also disadvantaged by the fact that, unlike Obama, she didn’t suddenly appear on the scene, unburdened by expectations or a bulky track record. Republicans may loathe her, but progressive Democrats are also suspicious of her centrist tendencies. Witness the Bernie brigade that refuses to roll over and die here.

Then there is the not-so-small fact that Hillary Clinton has come by her nomination by following a not-so-traditional path, Gillespie noted. Step by step, Americans were able to watch an unknown black man develop first into a presidential candidate, then into a president.

Hillary Clinton has been ever-present, and less exciting. “You got to know Obama,” Gillespie said. “He was electrifying and charismatic in ways that she is not.”

But back to Michelle Obama’s daughters and young women like them. Stacey Abrams, 42, is the House minority leader at the state Capitol. She has ambitions that, if they are to be fulfilled, will rely heavily on a next generation of women who recognize a shattered ceiling for what it is – even if they no longer consider it an earth-shaking event.

“I think the celebration is there,” Abrams said. “Hillary has been on our minds for eight years — which does not diminish the enthusiasm, but it may not be reflected the same way.

“You’ve got an entire generation of millennial women who viewed Hillary as not just a possibility, but as a near-certainty. They don’t remember the time before,” she said. “When you’re born in the middle of a moment, you don’t have a context for seeing.”

Age, even if clouded by a “Y” chromosome, does have its advantages. Especially when it comes to recognizing the end and beginning of epochs.

This whole gathering in Philadelphia, for instance, is devoted to assuring voters that Hillary Clinton is a warm, caring, trustworthy human being. Essentially, she’s shedding the Margaret Thatcheresque, iron-lady demeanor that a U.S. Senate campaign and a four-year stint as secretary of state required her to assume.

Then there was that Tuesday speech by her husband, President Bill Clinton. On one level, the Big Dog gave a serious, heartfelt account of the couple’s relationship, skipping over the worse parts. On another, the speech was a “Saturday Night Live” send-up of every wide-eyed testimony offered up by a candidate’s wife over the last 50 years or so.

Bill’s still working on that unblinking stare of adoration.

So cheer Hillary Clinton tonight if you like. Or don’t. But know that God has a sense of humor. And she expects you to laugh at the funny parts.

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