This is a sad and dangerous time for Hillary Clinton. Her presidential campaign is in more trouble than ever following her big loss last week to Democratic rival Barack Obama in the North Carolina primary, 56 to 42 percent, and her unimpressive 51 to 49 percent win in Indiana, a state seemingly made to order for her. Clinton pledged to fight on—in the West Virginia primary this week and the handful of remaining contests for the Democratic nomination. But she is losing ground to Obama in the all-important delegate race, she is far behind in the number of contests won and in the popular vote, her campaign is in serious debt, and her cause seems increasingly hopeless.
Yet she presses on, and many voters are asking why. The answer is perhaps most clearly found in her personal history. Ever since her student days four decades ago, she has seen herself as a national leader destined for greatness, and it's very difficult for her to accept failure today in the biggest quest of her adult life.
Her refusal to quit is easier to understand when one goes back and reads the commencement address she gave at Wellesley College on May 31, 1969—almost exactly 39 years ago—that got her considerable media attention as a rising leader and established her as a national spokeswoman for her peers. She spoke in an expansive, rambling style with no small degree of self-importance about "our generation" and its sense of mission to change the world. "We're not in the positions yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensable task of criticizing and constructive protest," Hillary Rodham said. She went on to reject America's "prevailing acquisitive and competitive corporate life" and declared, "We're searching for [a] more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating mode of living."
Today, it must be incredibly galling for Clinton to find her path to the White House blocked by an upstart like Obama who hasn't, in her mind, paid his dues or waited his turn. Just as important, her historic objective to be the first female president is being overwhelmed by Obama's equally historic objective to be the first African-American president. In effect, the principles and goals of change and diversity that Clinton has espoused for so long are now embodied in a more compelling way by someone else. It is Obama, not Clinton, who has captured the zeitgeist of change, and she has been unable to accept that. So Clinton fights on, hoping that some charge against Obama will stick, that he will make a fatal error, or that something in his background will destroy his candidacy.
In the process, she risks making her valiant campaign seem vainglorious and selfish—a turn of events that would greatly disappoint that 1969 commencement speaker at Wellesley.