Beyond the Shark Nets; the Panic in the Clinton Camp

01/07/2008 02:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Once, many years ago, around 1975, I was (laughably) on a short-board in the water off Durban, when I realized I had drifted way too far out, near the shark-nets which were there to protect the (white) swimmers. I imagined the sharks just waiting beyond the nets, eagerly anticipating lunch. Somehow the dappling of the light on the water had created a kind of hypnotic effect, a petit mal attack. I panicked, trying to get back in. It wasn't happening. I was done, and I started to fight, tiring myself more and more, the more I fought, the more I could not believe it was going to go down this way. Fifteen, comfortable in the waters, and flailing. The life guards came out, and towed me and my board in.

The panic I felt is being felt in the Clinton campaign as Barack Obama pulls ahead in New Hampshire. Senator Hillary Clinton is awakening from the hypnotic petit mal torpor of bad advice, and the smug certitude of a presumptive nominee, into the cold hard snowy January reality of an actual battle for hearts and minds of an unimpressed electorate. Infighting dominates at her camp, finger pointing prevails, and still Bill and Hilary come out swinging against Obama. With each punch, each vulgar assertion of his inexperience, or his lack of a stand on women's rights, they seem more and more and more desperate, more vicious, and ever more out of sync with the emerging spirit of the day.

Seven months ago, I was at a Hollywood Hills fundraiser for Senator Clinton, when she answered a young girl's (reasonable, but I felt stage-managed) question about "the glass ceiling for women". I sensed in this tiny bit of theatre, all of the cautious triangulation that she employs to cover all the bases. The moment evidenced the crushing lack of spontaneity in her approach to campaigning, and even decision making. When I asked her why she felt the need to have shills even in friendly crowds in the hills above Sunset, there was a dismayed gasp. She snapped "You try doing this a dozen times a week". The crowd cheered her, booed me, and I knew she was going to have a hard go of it, then and there -- if all she had was that brittle humorlessness. No charm. No grace. No admission of anything amiss. And then it kept happening: The shills in the crowds.

Well. Voters know what the fire this time looks like: They are thirsty for intellect unfettered by compass-watching-perpetual caution. That alone draws them to Obama.

They are voracious for a passionate and credible communicator; that too, points them towards Obama.

They crave a new model, a new kind of American, who somehow is not redolent of the old and shop-worn language of the past. That craving brings them in a straight and inexorable line right to Obama.

And the Clinton camp knows it, and sees it, and has literally no clue how to respond. Because all they have is a candidate who is tough, and admirably indefatigable. (The one moment in the New Hampshire debate on Saturday night that seemed to humanize her was the "likability" beat. She admitted to having hurt feelings over some of the negative qualities attributed to her. ) She smiled, and in that moment, Hillary seemed human, vulnerable, light of touch, tough, strong and funny. One of us. But still, after an endless presumption of inevitability, hearts had grown slightly cool.

By Sunday, Obama was ten points ahead of her, virtually, as if proving -- she is not the one who captures the almost entirely extinguished dreams of an entire nation. By today, he is even further ahead. In the Clinton camp there is almost nothing they can do to make her seem anything other than the triangulated politico she is. (I maintain that when she is humanized, warm and funny, it makes her seem strong and capable.) I have to admit, what she has been through over the past two decades would rip out anybody's trust and render their sense of ease into shreds; I am not without sympathy, nor without memory of how badly the Clintons were treated during Whitewater. And maybe America along with her husband -- helped ruin her for a great future -- the scarring stigma of Gap dresses and the humiliation visited on them; her husband's word-games -- this parade would turn most of us into maniacal hermits. The Clintons are thin-skinned and rancorous when they should be expansive and winning . And yet, and yet, and yet. The advisors, the ex-president, and the senator herself all look so scared to lose now -- as if they know that they are drifting towards oblivion, especially if she continues to wage a nasty campaign of old style D.C. negativity.

Are we seeing something bigger happening; a refutation of the unknowable (stolid dead-white??) politco, after Bush and co? The American appetite for that may be on the wane and it is evident that the Clinton advisors are out of their depth here. Do Americans feel willing to endure ANY level of disconnect in their president -- after Bush? No. No. No. After two terms of inarticulate falsity, they are positively electrified by the raw power, the soaring oratory, and the youthful romance of Barack. And every time the Clinton camp attacks this man, they look worse and worse and worse for it. They talk of experience, and of acts, not words -- but what to make of the ACT of voting to authorize a heinous, trillion dollar plus war that has cost thousands of lives and untold misery -- all on a bad hunch and bad intelligence -- an act she has never backed away from? How much more would we respect her for being able to say "I will regret that for the rest of my life, every single day, and I will work to take responsibility for having been a part of that rush to war"?

Barack Obama came out against the same heinous war.

THAT is an act. THAT is a deed. THAT makes him more and more attractive to the young, and to women, and to the increasing number of antiwar parents of military men and women.

Obama's path to this candidacy is wildly impressive, romantic, and even heroic. He represents hope for the millions of disenfranchised Americans who have not had the means or even reason to dream for a candidate who seems anything like them. In any way.

Obama may very well turn out to be the unimagined realization of a very old and time-honored American dream of the everyman. I don't know. But it IS a dream and in politics after the age of the neocons betrayal, THAT particular dream, at least, seem to involve the embracing of the human race, rather than the cold-eyed and oil-lubricated urge to dominate it.

And voters in Iowa, and New Hampshire can feel it. If that good man is elected as the leader of the free world -- I can think of no greater lesson to the rest of the world in the power and triumph of American democracy in action. We are watching a national awakening to that notion: Should Barack be elected, America regains her moral-authority in the world -- a world that is being pulled out to sea, in panic, in the dark, past the shark nets of civility and into the barbaric and uncharted waters of chaos and fractious division.