Barack, Hillary, Jack and Bobby

05/25/2011 12:35 pm ET

It turns out Hillary wasn't ready to lead on day one, but the sheer grit of her end game will long be remembered. In her concession we glimpsed the candidate she might have been.

She's at her best when she's closest to inhabiting herself. No one's public persona is an exact replica of her private self but in this campaign Clinton went through more costume changes than a rock diva: heir to the throne; Xena, warrior princess; hardened pol, feminist icon.

In January she thanked New Hampshire voters for "helping me find my voice" but that happy moment was still a long ways off. In Ohio and then Pennsylvania she channeled a surprisingly convincing blend of Rocky Balboa and Norma Rae in courting America's least visible, least fashionable, constituency: hard scrabble, small town whites.

At first it was a marriage of convenience: she desperately needed votes; they desperately needed to be noticed by someone in power. That the former Wellesley commencement speaker went over so well at the Altoona K-Mart was a surprise some imputed to race.

To some of those voters Obama's race did matter. His pastor mattered to more of them; his words at that San Francisco fundraiser set them all on edge. But his real problem is how he sometimes seemed not to notice them. Calls for unity and reform float past people who've lost jobs, pensions, health care, even their homes and who suspect reason and civility alone won't get them back.

This is actually good news, if only because it's never too late to notice people. Just ask Hillary, who morphed overnight into the people's tribune after twenty years as a corporate-friendly centrist.

As was said of Julia Roberts in Erin Brokovich, her performance was a revelation. Maybe that's all it was, a performance, but my sense of her is that populism of a sort was always part of her identity, even if it wasn't part of her plan. Back in the health care fight she certainly wielded that sword.

Until March, Clinton was utterly tone deaf. Egged on by Bill and 'chief strategist' Mark Penn she defended lobbyists and attack ads as a nation retched. Penn told her voters cared about her capacity to be commander in chief. They cared more about her capacity to tell the truth. Each time she overreached, pandered or attacked, she lost ground.

You'd think one of the sharpies on her payroll would have whispered to her that her stratospheric negatives left no margin for that sort of thing. Apparently not. By the time she woke up she'd been outspent, outvoted, ridiculed and written off. That's when she started winning, proving once again that in this life we grow more from pain than virtue.

She's no William Jennings Bryan but her late victories proved even a little bit of populism may go a long way this year. As "change" trumped "experience" in January and February, "fighting for an embattled middle class" blew away "bringing us together" in March, April, May and June.

No matter their race, people struggling to get by know better than affluent liberals how little respect power has for reason. They're ready to fight to win back what's rightly theirs. Obama must now convince them he's ready too.

People remembering Robert Kennedy this week compared him to Obama. Barack's more like Jack than Bobby: Both built campaigns on an undifferentiated idealism and sheer personal magnetism. Both are post ideological figures who belie cultural stereotypes. Like Jack, Barack has a cool, wry detachment and preternatural poise.

But this isn't 1960. We're in deeper trouble now; in hard times people aren't so easily transported by silken rhetoric. And it's useful to recall that facing a lesser prejudice, Kennedy barely eked out a win over an evil gnome.

For likability, John McCain's closer to Ike than Nixon. It may be his only edge. McCain wants town hall meetings. He'll find them harder with two candidates in the room. Still, debates alone don't win elections. In picking a vice president, Obama should recall how Jack Kennedy swallowed hard to take LBJ and how it all worked out. And he should remember Bobby, who went to Appalachia and Salinas and the Mississippi Delta, saw poverty and found a voice and a calling.

Like Obama, Robert Kennedy knew the old categories and solutions were useless. Though liberal, he was deeply skeptical of bureaucracy, wary of busing and welfare. Talking to government, he said, was like "shouting up a waterfall." With Ralph Nader he shared a vision of empowering citizens, consumers and workers of all races, ages and incomes.

Obama's campaign circulates two ideas that are dangerous if believed. The first is that just to know him is to love him. By the time he won the nomination his negatives were nearly as high as Clinton's; in the closing months she did in fact win more votes. A popularity contest with McCain would be even tougher.

The second is that he can win without the traditional swing stated in which she defeated him. It is a theory that underestimates McCain's strength in the Southwest and overstates the general similarity between primary and general election voters in the Southeast.

Obama must go back to West Virginia, where Jack Kennedy proved he could talk to Protestants; to Ohio, where John Kerry fell just a health care plan short of the presidency; to Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida, where any Democrat who would be President must talk to people who don't look or talk like him.

Bobby taught Democrats, the few who were listening, how to go to those places; how to listen; what to say; lessons Hillary Clinton was just learning; lesson Obama would do well to ponder, perhaps in the company of his vanquished foe.