PHILADELPHIA — If you’re still wondering — despite the coy tweets, the impending avalanche of speeches, the assiduous fundraising for the renamed Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation — whether Hillary Clinton is running for president, consider her reference Tuesday night to Teddy Roosevelt’s man in the arena.
Roosevelt disdained critics and carpers. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,” Roosevelt proclaimed, “who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
Hillary Clinton is the ultimate woman in the arena. Countless adjectives have been used to describe her. Timid is not among them.
Sure, this was the fallback speech, anodyne exhortations to active citizenship, after the mess in Syria and the president’s scheduling of an address to the nation made the original plan for high-minded policy thoughts on national security and the Constitution too dicey. When in doubt, summon Teddy.
But for Clinton, the arena is a constant, irresistible lure. When she announced plans to step down as secretary of state after 20 years of balancing “on the highest tightrope of American and global politics,” as she told People magazine, Clinton said her immediate plans concerned catching up “on mundane things like sleep and cleaning closets.”
That didn’t last long. The ceremony celebrating Clinton’s receipt of the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center here was studded with references to her inevitable candidacy — including from a potential GOP rival, Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and National Constitution Center chairman.
“Hillary and I come from different political parties, and we disagree about a few things, but we do agree on the wisdom of the American people — especially those in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina,” Bush said.
The timing of the event — on the eve of the first anniversary of the Benghazi attacks — turned out to be as ticklish for Bush as it was for Clinton. When the award was announced in June, Rush Limbaugh erupted.
“It’s bad enough the woman is getting this award,” he said. “Then to find out that someone who is touted as a Republican presidential candidate is going to be presenting it to her because he runs this organization?”
The National Review’s Jim Geraghty tweeted earlier this month, “Awarding a ‘Liberty Medal’ to Hillary pretty much destroys the Jeb Bush 2016 talk, doesn’t it?”
This is a pathetic commentary on the state of civil discourse in 2013. The award went jointly to Bush’s father and Clinton’s husband in 2006, and to a predecessor as secretary of state, Colin Powell, in 2002 with nary a peep. But such is the remarkable depth of Hillary hatred — and Hillary fear.
Tellingly, Bush — in contrast to the practice at previous ceremonies and the original announcement that he would make the award — left that honor to Constitution Center President Jeffrey Rosen. No incriminating photos.
Others were less skittish. University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann referenced “something many of us can’t wait to celebrate — the first woman president of the United States.” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a Democrat, predicted that “she will be the first first lady to walk back into the White House in her own right as president of the United States of America — and I assume that she’ll take President Clinton along with her.”
Although Hillary Clinton noted that her husband had just enjoyed one of his “annual play dates” with Bush 41 in Kennebunkport, Bill Clinton was intriguingly absent from the festivities, in person and on the lavish video tributes.
Syria, though Clinton touched on it only glancingly in her remarks, was front and center, the unavoidable subtext with President Obama’s address looming. Anti-intervention protesters chanted through Clinton’s speech. “This debate is good for our democracy,” she said in a nod to the demonstrators and the broader, unhappy public. Looking out on the site of the Constitutional Convention, she invoked the Framers’ struggle to balance the “need to provide for a common defense with their fears of excessive executive power.”
The men who gathered here 226 years ago to draft a new national charter never imagined a woman as president. Indeed, as Clinton noted, it took a constitutional amendment more than a century later to extend women the right to vote, and “we are still on our way to that more perfect union.”
On a steamy September night, it was not hard to imagine what progress she had in mind.
Ruth Marcus is an editorial writer for The Washington Post.