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Hillary, Barack And Us

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
I've made as much fun of pop psychology as any jaded, wiseacre column desperate for opinions. But I'm sorry: A whole lot of Democrats and journalists who feel it is their business to give Democrats' free advice need some serious virtual couch time.

So tell me how you're feeling about Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama. Because I think you are in denial about some very important issues your fellow citizens have in their relationships with these two potential parent figures.

I sense most voters who don't have books by Herbert Marcuse, Michael Moore and Al Franken on their shelves feel profoundly conflicted about choosing either Hillary or Barack to be president.

Enjoying the voyeuristic thrill of watching family psychodramas unfold in public is traditional American form of public therapy. For patients who vote, however, this is not an optimal process for selecting a president. Sen. Clinton's psychological quest is just too obvious and determinative for most us. What exactly drives her we cannot know, which itself is frustrating. Is it redemption? Or resurrection? Would being leader of the free world erase the public indignities she suffered due to her husband? Does she have a messianic thing going on? Did she ever have a desire to completely escape public scrutiny and dissection altogether?

I'm agnostic on these therapeutic queries. But the sense people have that Sen. Clinton's drive is overly determined by her emotional issues is, I suggest, fatal. This is not sexist. Al Gore has a similar problem. Richard Nixon had that problem; he didn't solve it — but George Wallace solved it for him. There is a balance between ambition, drive, earned confidence and reluctance that voters are comfortable with. For many voters, Sen. Clinton doesn't have that balance.

Sen. Clinton is also emotionally inscrutable. That adds a layer to the question of "what makes her tick?" that is very uncomfortable. In public, she's a robot. No compelling and satisfying account of her private side exists. In every election since 1972, the presidential candidate who gave the appearance of being the most emotionally available won. Sen. Clinton will never be that candidate.

Sen. Obama is a Rorschach test. I see hope! I see brains! I see a whole new kind of politician! I see an amazing life story! I see an orator! I see a natural! I see a hero!

Well, real people aren't Rorschach tests. They aren't blank slates. And by January 2008, Senator Blank Slate, D-Ill., will be a messy chalkboard. He may well be a fabulous chalkboard with cool stuff all over it. But more likely, he'll be pretty much like an American politician, though perhaps one who is a great guy, with a big brain and a powerful voice.

In the 19th century, blank slates became president all the time. Party titans would lock antlers and fight to the death, and then the party would tap an unknown Sometimes it worked out pretty well, as with Abraham Lincoln. Sometimes not so well, as with Franklin Pierce.

Television has killed blank slates. Jimmy Carter came the closest, but he filled in the blanks pretty aggressively by doing things like telling us about the "lust in his heart."

These days, candidates with maverick window dressing and hero worshippers in tow break hearts: Bill Bradley and John McCain in 2000, Howard Dean in 2004. Obama's fate is not preordained, but it will be determined by more than the emotional projections of voters looking for a new significant other.

Americans also have race issues, though it's not clear exactly how they play out. The last potential candidate to really break the national heart was Colin Powell. Is that a coincidence? Does the national political press have a soft spot for African-American political superstars? Or is it that Americans really do have an enduring and serious wish to make a huge change in race relations in this country by electing a black president? Or is Harold Ford's defeat in the Tennessee Senate race this year a bad omen? I'm not at all convinced that all this has been worked through yet.

I think this used to be called Reality Therapy.



Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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