By Gene Lyons
One of the funniest conversations I've heard took place among a small group of Arkansas women who'd done their best to clue the newlywed Hillary Rodham in on a basic fact of Southern life she'd been reluctant to accept in the 1970s: cute counts. It's not necessary to be a beauty queen, but a woman who doesn't look as attractive as she can is often suspected of being too "authentic" for her own good.
The lady lumberjack look then fashionable on Ivy League campuses confused Arkansas voters, as did Hillary's decision to keep her maiden name after marriage. (As the husband of a Southern girl often patronized to her face in a New England college town back then, I can testify that cultural incomprehension can run both ways. But that's another topic.)
The point is that Hillary Rodham Clinton listened. As she later explained, she hadn't really understood how strongly people in Arkansas felt about the name thing. So she took the name "Clinton" to stop sending a message she'd never intended. About the same time, it became fairly obvious that she'd started taking clothing, makeup and hairstyling tips from women friends, and quit looking like an outsider, too.
So does that make her more or less "authentic" by current journalistic standards? Does it make her a big faker, the "manipulative, clawing robot" of a Maureen Dowd column? Or a relatively normal human being adjusting to the expectations of the people around her?
Not long afterward, Hillary also started doing something very much like what she's recently been doing in Iowa and New Hampshire: holding small-scale town meetings with local school boards, parents and teachers in support of the then-newly re-elected Governor Bill Clinton's Arkansas education reforms.
Clinton's 1983 education package -- its slogan was "No More Excuses" -- brought math, science and arts classes to many rural school districts for the first time. It raised teacher salaries and increased taxes to fund them. Over time, it's helped close the historic gap between the state's country and city schools.
And before the campaign was over, Arkansas's first lady was on a first-name basis with thousands of, yes, "everyday people" in all 75 Arkansas counties. She came, she saw, she talked, and she listened. As a secondary matter, Hillary's image problems among Arkansan voters faded away.
How it works is pretty simple: You accept Arkansas, Arkansas accepts you. I'm pretty sure this is broadly true of Iowa and New Hampshire voters, too. So is there an element of calculation in Hillary's latest listening tour? Sure there is.
Is it merely cheap political theater?
Look, she's a professional politician running for president. Of course her campaign events are stage-managed. How could they not be? Just as she ran for the U.S. Senate from New York back in 1999, a state where she'd never actually lived.
Although New Yorkers tend to be more flattered than offended when famous carpetbaggers descend upon them, she held small forums all across the state -- impressing most observers with her industriousness and knowledge of local issues. "America's mayor" Rudy Giuliani backed out of the race.
She's a very smart cookie, Hillary Rodham Clinton. And she always does her homework. No, she's not a mesmerizing speaker like Bill, and not the most outwardly charismatic politician in the race (whoever that may be). GOP focus groups say her biggest weakness is their perception of her "entitlement" and seeming remoteness from ordinary people's lives.
So off she goes on another listening tour. "A sweet, docile granny in a Scooby van," Dowd sneers. However, contrary to reporters who marvel at Hillary's "willingness to put on the hair shirt of humility to regain power," she actually appears to enjoy the fool things.
Partly, it's a woman thing. See, Hillary and my wife worked together back when the governor's wife served on the board of Arkansas Children's Hospital. Diane always mentioned two things: how hard she worked on children's health issues, and how she never pulled rank.
But what really endeared her to my wife was Hillary's empathy during a prolonged medical crisis involving our son. At times, Diane was under terrible emotional strain. Hillary never failed to show concern. Was the new treatment helping? Had we thought about seeking another opinion? She acted like a friend when my wife needed all the friends she could get.
And no, there was nothing in it for her. I wasn't a political journalist then. It wasn't about me. It was about two mothers.
In an article unfortunately headlined "Manufacturing Authenticity," Slate's John Dickerson gets it right. For all her privilege and celebrity, Hillary "has something going for her that other politicians do not when it comes to these kinds of events ... she has thought about family issues her entire life."
Dickerson marveled that in Iowa, "Clinton actually appeared to be listening."
And that could turn out to be her secret weapon.