Jon Alter on Monday: Hillary Not Sexy, Obama Had It Sewed Up

Newsweek columnist and pundit Jonathan Alter managed to double-embarrass himself on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. He should win the award for Most Embarrassed Pundit. Appearing on Monday night's Charlie Rose show on PBS (video at CharlieRose.com), Alter repeatedly threw dirt on Hillary's political grave, suggesting she would never become president and would have to settle for becoming "one of the great all-time senators." But he also suggested she had no "subtextual sexual energy" that brings "electricity on the rope line." He said all the presidential sex appeal was on the male side:

I think, and this is a controversial thing to say, but I think one of problems we`re learning with being a woman candidate in this country is that it`s hard to create that electricity on the rope line. It`s really only in France, maybe, where you can use sex appeal if you are a woman. In the United States, it`s men. It`s Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Bobby Kennedy who went -- you see them on the rope line. There`s something sexual going on there with the voters.

And women through no fault of their own, it`s just not part of the transaction, the political transaction. So you don`t get that subtextual sexual energy that has been a part of politics for a long time. It might sound like an obvious point but when you get into the intense campaign some of these unspoken things can be very powerful.

And there is something nonverbal and magnetic that is going on with these crowds that we see, just literally thousands of people coming out to see Barack Obama. She has had good crowds, too, but they really haven`t been at quite the same level.

Charlie Rose made Alter's embarrassment worse by plucking some of this Hillary-not-sexy verbiage and pasting it as a highlight at the beginning of Monday's show. Alter seems to have a thing for analyzing sexual machismo. Recall this Best of Notable Quotables classic from 1997:

"Overlaying this structure was a national politics heavily conditioned by nearly half a century of cold war. Strength and toughness trumped everything else. At one military briefing during the1980s, Reagan was shown models of American missiles. The American power phalluses were long and white; the Soviets', shorter and black. We were still safely ahead, but only by the margin of our machismo." -- Newsweek's Jonathan Alter reviewing the 1996 political landscape, December 30, 1996/January 6, 1997 issue.

Let's go back to the start of the Rose interview, where Alter really steps in it by suggesting the whole Democratic race is over:

ROSE: How are people assaying things?

ALTER: It's quite different than it was last week in Iowa when, on the eve of the caucuses, we really had no idea what was going to happen, because nobody had any sense of what the turnout was going to be. When it turned out to be over 200,000, almost twice as many as in 2004, of course, Obama got a big victory. We didn't know that. But in this case it's quite different. It's like looking out into the ocean and you're seeing a second big wave. Not quite a tsunami but another big wave coming, and there's every expectation that Barack Obama is going to win in New Hampshire tomorrow. The only question is what the margin will be. The wide assumption is it will be a double digit margin. Could be as high as 15 or 20 percent, but we're not sure.

ROSE: And what’s the impact for the Clinton campaign?

ALTER: It's a serious one. They’re in a deep hole and they don't know how to get out. Does that mean that their campaign is over? No, but I don't think there are a lot of political observers who would give them very good odds right now. They need to reformat their campaign, relaunch it, which we’ll see them do later on this week. They've got 18 days before South Carolina, which is plenty of time. There's also the possibility that the pundits are wrong and they'll do much better than expected tomorrow. Let's say that Obama only wins by a few points. The way the expectation game works, that could be seen as almost a victory for Hillary. Or if she were to carry Democrats even if she loses among the independents, they could then carry that forward as an argument. But they've been grasping for a lot of straws the last couple of days and throwing things again the wall, knowing they probably won't stick. Now they’re going to, I think in all likelihood, have a series of meetings this week and try to figure out what to do before South Carolina.

ROSE: What is the talk within the campaign? Are there recriminations, is there anger? Is there frustration? Is there an effort to pin blame on something other than this sort of historical moment of Barack Obama?

ALTER: That would be a yes on all counts. You know it's very chaotic inside the campaign. There is finger pointing. How it all shakes out, the people inside don’t know quite yet. You had Hillary Cinton herself who kind of grabbed control of their morning conference call yesterday and said ‘Look, I'm going to come out guns blazing.’ I went to an event she had yesterday in Nashua. She tried to go after Obama on several different issues, and she got cheers from the crowds, but it did haven't a lot of traction then. They have time though to try and get something going. I think their problem is that even people who are not for Obama at this point have something invested in him. And I'm not sure they want to see him taken down in a conventional way. So I'm not sure how they get out of that bind right now. And they’re going to look for different paths, but they are fighting generational change. They are fighting inspiration. And it's very, very tough. It's sad for people who like Hillary Clinton personally, which I do. She got a little choked up today. And I thought it was genuine and kind of moving when she talked about how hard she has fought for change in her life. You can tell that she realized that the odds are it will be for naught at least in terms of becoming president. She can go on and become one of the great all-time senators.

ROSE: What’s he going through? What’s he saying? [I thought Rose meant Bill Clinton, but Alter took it as an Obama question.]

ALTER: Well, he -- you know after Iowa, he was very confident that he would go on to win the nomination and the presidency and conveyed that confidence to a lot of people around him. He has got a -- very much at ease. I think you saw that in his debate performance, even though it wasn’t an A-plus performance. We know he had problems in that format. He is very, very confident. His rallies have been bursting at the seams. Hundreds of people outside who can't get in. And the events that I've gone to have been, you know, first class political performances. You know, Hillary Clinton's problem is, Charlie, that she's a good candidate, but she’s up against a great candidate. And her theme which is basically experience is up against change, which is a more powerful theme. If you want to look at it in a different way, I think of it as restoration versus inspiration. Restoration as themes have had some power in American life. Ronald Reagan was elected essentially trying to restore some of what he saw as America's greatness from the 1950s. It was powerful.

But if you've got somebody who has a message that taps into the latent idealism of the Democratic Party, essentially making an argument for a third Clinton term is gonna fall short. I almost envision the argument like my grandparents in 1940, when some people didn't want roosevelt to have a third term and they wore these buttons, ‘No Third Term.’ They didn't have a candidate like an Obama at that time to step in and oppose Roosevelt. In this case, the alternative to Clinton is so powerful that you do sort of see Clintonism in general receding into the rearview mirror.

Alter did allow that the Clintons would fight on. Hillary's unofficial media pressure group fussed at Chris Matthews for saying Hillary got her popularity from her husband's messing around, but Alter basically agreed on the Rose show:

She`s going to be able to go forward. Look, the one thing we know about the Clintons is they don`t quit. And so she will use grit and fortitude, and I think that`s when she first got her popularity during Lewinsky. Was people thought that she had a lot of fortitude. That will help her. She will go on to South Carolina and Super Tuesday.

But he also insisted that her primary victories would probably be a loser's consolation prize:

And in the same way that Jerry Brown won I think six primaries after Jimmy Carter sewed up the nomination in 1976 and even won Connecticut against Bill Clinton in 1992, you might see John Edwards or even Hillary Clinton winning some of those late primaries. Not having enough delegates to be nominated but staying in the race.

At least this month, Jonathan Alter's middle name ought to be "Oops."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis