The New York Times recently ran down a list of women who might someday become the nation's first female president. Out of both courtesy and caution, it included Hillary Clinton, but the whole point of the exercise was that it is not going to be her. Her campaign is all but over, but that's no longer the point. She's ending it in a way to start all over.
That Clinton will lose this time is a foregone conclusion. That she deserves to lose is a widely accepted opinion, strongly held by women as well as men, which, you would think, should mute the growing chorus that Clinton is the victim of vicious misogyny. Anyone who thinks this ought to scan the bookshelves for the yards of anti-Hillary books written by women or read the op-ed pages, where women go after Clinton without, to say the least, sisterly restraint.
I, too, have taken my shots at Clinton. I have done so not because of any sexism but for reasons having to do with character and, inevitably, a kind of Clinton fatigue: Eight years of her husband was enough. It was, in fact, those eight years — a drizzle of pseudo-scandals and one genuine whopper — that crippled Clinton's campaign right from the start. To most Americans, she ran first and foremost as the wife of the former president — a third Clinton term for a weary nation. Pray, no.
What's more — and this is the tricky part — she ran as only a woman could. She acknowledged that she had been a victim, which, of course, she was. She referred to it occasionally, sometimes with great charm, sometimes with humor, and for some voters — particularly older women who often know a bit about life that men don't — it was something of a selling point.
A man could never have done anything similar. A man cannot play the victim, especially a sexual one. I am tempted to say it would be unmanly, but that's not exactly what I mean. I mean it does not befit a leader. The Internet would sizzle with ridicule.
Now, let me purge this formula of its gender implications. Let me suggest that pride, honor, and a sort of unforgiving toughness are not male or female qualities. They are the qualities of leaders. It's hard to imagine Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir or Indira Gandhi doing a Tammy Wynette — standin' by her man. They might well have done so, but the reason we have a difficult time picturing such a thing is that they had leadership qualities that, whether male or female, suggest otherwise.
Hillary Clinton is now exhibiting those leadership qualities. In rejecting the chorus of demands that she get out of the race, she is acting as any leader would. Take a tour of statues throughout the world, and, while you will find monuments to plenty of historical figures who lost battles, you will find none to "A Gracious Loser." As Vince Lombardi or Leo Durocher — both famous for mythical statements about winning and losing — could have told you, there is no such thing as a gracious loser. You lose hard. You lose tough. You lose only when you are beaten.
In the end, no one begrudges a bitter-ender. Robert E. Lee is not vilified because he fought on too long, wasting lives — and all of it, mind you, in the cause of slavery. In Israel, Masada is venerated because the zealots held out and killed themselves rather than surrender. Thermopylae is not considered a defeat but a lesson to us all: Never give up!
This is precisely what Hillary Clinton is doing. She is staying in the race because losing comes soon enough, anyway, and life teaches that anything can happen. Sure, she's hurting the Democratic Party a bit, and, sure, she's inflicting some damage on Barack Obama. He will not only hear echoes of Clinton's attacks out of the mouth of John McCain, but on the Internet and elsewhere they will be recycled so that Clinton herself will be the attacker. Nothing dies on YouTube.
But in the end, when Obama is crowned king of the Democrats, Clinton will throw her arms around him, and the music will swell, and the crowds will cheer — and everything will be forgotten. And when that happens, Hillary Clinton, who will be only 65 in 2012 and four years after that still will be younger than McCain is now, will be positioned to run for president, not as someone's wife but as a gritty fighter who just would not quit.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.