The Rise and Fall of Brand Hillary

He’s a Mac, and she’s a PC — not any PC — perhaps a Gateway rapidly devolving into, say, a Commodore. How did this happen? Just six months ago, she was the cutting-edge, gleaming, leading brand, and her challenger was an unknown mumbling in a garage somewhere.

How has Hillary Clinton fallen so far so fast, while Barack Obama keeps gaining momentum? Any fair observer would admit that there is not much difference between the two on policy; the difference is in style and presentation, much like two similar laptops. Whereas the golden boy, with his even keel, gradual reveal and preternatural elegance and calm, keeps evolving into the Apple of our eye, she’s stumbling, changing models, adding weird, outdated peripherals, like the poignant PC guy with the webcam strapped to his head.

One problem is her tin ear. Hillary is the only person on Earth who can make “I’ll see you in Ohio!” sound like a threat. In their debate last week in Cleveland, she opened scrappily, getting into some tough-guy arguing with Obama over healthcare. By the second question (on NAFTA, which put her in an awkward position), she started complaining about her unfair treatment by the media. She said she found it curious that she always gets the first question on “all of these issues, but I’d be happy to answer it,” which deflated the complaint, and turned her into a passive-aggressive victim, especially since it was said with a disingenuous smile. Then she raced straight into a reference to a recent Saturday Night Live skit that made fun of the press fawning all over Obama. (“Maybe we should ask Barack is he’s comfortable and if he needs another pillow,” she zinged.) No one in the hall got it, perhaps because every pop-culture joke she tries to make falls flat, unless it’s delivered to a crowd of roaring supporters. At the debate, it sunk and went clunk.

What’s more, despite her talk of experience, she is uniquely compromised as a presidential candidate precisely because eight years of it came as First Lady. Combine that with the fact that as the first serious female presidential contender, she is a walking Rorschach test, a lightning rod for all women, and that’s a real bind.

Clinton is notoriously polarizing; I myself have run the love/hate gamut with her. Ten years ago, I was furious at her for staying in the marriage. When it all worked out and she became the senator from New York, she made me feel resentful, and regret my own choices. Since then, she has turned me around once again: I’ve been impressed with her hard work, diligence and grace. Lately, I’ve just felt sorry for her. And even though the last thing I want to do is blame the press and say it’s been sexist, I have to agree that it has been unfair.

Women identify with Hillary Clinton, yes, and that’s certainly one of her strengths, but it’s also a profound source of her troubles. Educated, successful, upper-middle-class white women (many of whom are found in the media) identify perhaps a little too strongly with her. Consider two recent examples: Katie Couric and Tina Fey.

First Katie. In leaving Today and accepting the anchor gig on the CBS Evening News, Couric made her own “first woman” headlines, breaking up a longstanding male power triad.

You don’t have to be trained in Freudian analysis to see the career parallels: Taking a page from the way Hillary started her political campaign, Couric initiated her own “listening tour.”

Within the first month, all the listening-tour-based initiatives fell by the wayside, as did her much-mocked quest to come up with a viewer-generated sign-off. (“I’ll see you tomorrow,” seems to be the wacky, mold-breaking phrase she ended up with.)

For Couric, breaking into the Edward R. Murrow-worshipping CBS News culture as a highly paid morning show diva has proven prickly and complicated, with some of the 60 Minutes crew even taking pay cuts to accommodate her hire. Not surprisingly, she’s the source of much inside-the-network sniping, and was quoted in a profile in New York magazine as second-guessing the whole move.

Perhaps that’s why, in a 60 Minutes interview with the senator on Super Tuesday, she kept at the same question, like a dog with a slipper, about whether Hillary ever wanted to give up. Despite the barrage, Hillary remained positive.

“…The only way I know how to do it is to believe with all my heart that I’m going to be successful