Saturday, May 10, 2008

Riding High in April, Shot Down in May

Imagine you are young woman, born in the 1930s, growing up in 1940s and 1950s New York City. You're intelligent and a good student, so you're admitted to one of the City's highly selective specialized high schools, in this case, Bronx Science. You go on to earn an undergraduate degree at the first of the Seven Sisters, Mount Holyoke. You graduate, marry, and spend the 1960s and the 1970s raising your three children, caring for your husband, and making a home.

Nice. You're living the American dream.

One day in 1974, a neighbor asks you to host a gathering for a local lawyer with political ambitions. Mario Cuomo runs for lieutenant governor of New York. He loses, but he gets a gig as New York's Secretary of State. In 1975, he gives you a job and for the next ten years you serve the citizens of New York as assistant to the secretary of state for economic development and neighborhood preservation as well as deputy director of the New York state division of economic opportunity. In 1985 now-Governor Cuomo promotes you to assistant secretary of state, a position you hold for three years.

Interesting second act.

In 1988 you assess your opportunities and decide to run for a U.S. House seat that spans parts of Westchester and Queens. You beat a two-term Republican in a squeaker and are sworn in as a member of the 101st Congress. In subsequent elections you will pull 62% and 67% of the vote against your Republican opposition. In at least one you won't have much opposition to speak of at all. You serve your district in Congress for twelve years, sitting on and chairing various committees and subcommittees along the way: Labor; Health and Human Services; Education; and State, Foreign Operations. Later, you'll get a plum roles as chairperson of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and on the newly formed Committee for Homeland Security.

Impressive third act.

In 2000, the senior Senator from your home state, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, announces his retirement and you -- along with the New York Democratic establishment -- seriously consider your options. You're a brand name in New York politics. You've got twenty-five years of experience serving the state, twelve of those in the federal legislature. You know New York. You know D.C. For the last decade you've probably spent more time on the Eastern Shuttle and Amtrak Metroliner than most people have in their own houses. You've worked your butt off. You've schmoozed. You've fund-raised. You've paid your dues. You've been a Democrat in Congress when being a Democrat was not much fun. You're a player. And you must have been doing something right, because your constituents kept sending you back to do it over and over again. You gear up to run.

Not so fast.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, someone else expresses interest in the job, too. Someone without your experience in either state or federal government. Someone who's never held elected office. Someone who's not even a New Yorker. But even you have to admit it: this person -- this interloper -- might make a more glamorous candidate. They might bring a little more oomph to the race. They might drive more people to the polls out of sheer curiosity. They might have more influence in the senate. They might bring New York more attention -- and more goodies. You've always been there. You'll always be there. You're a standby. A stalwart. You're part of the machine. But the interloper has a machine, too. And the interloper could make history! "Let this hysteria die down," you think. When it does, you'll be there. So while the interloper dithers and dances with the press, you play understudy. You wait in the wings while the press calls you a Handmaiden. Finally, the decision comes down from the Powers That Be.

It's not your turn.

The interloper wants the seat. And the Democratic Establishment -- the one within which you've been toiling for twenty-five years -- wants the interloper. What do you do? Do you cry? Complain? Throw a public tantrum? Stonewall? Refuse to yield? No. You do what you have to do, which is to become famous for what you didn't do. For the good of the party. Incidentally, later you'll become one of that interloper's most reliable allies.

Why am I telling you about Nita M. Lowey?

Because Hillary Clinton is not the first woman (or man) to work for something she wanted badly and for which she was qualified and probably very well suited and have someone come seemingly out of nowhere and take it away from her. She's done her share of that taking and when she did, Nita Lowey, for one, stepped up, stepped aside, and took it like a grownup.

But more importantly, because that sort of thing happens every day. I bet it's happened to you, because I know it's happened to me.

I know many women (and at least a couple of men) who think something's been taken from Hillary Clinton. (I think she threw it away in part, but I digress... .) I wonder if they were as disappointed for Nita Lowey? Were hopes and dreams invested in her candidacy dashed? Did they see her as a model of thwarted ambition, as many seem to view Hillary (which I find amusing seeing as Hillary's fall-back position is the United States Senate)? As a victim of bad timing (which is how I see Hillary, in part)? Or just as a person who hit the proverbial bump in the road, did what she had to do, and made the best of it?

Inspired by a conversation with Culture of Truth.

Photo by Eric Thayer/Photo Shelter

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