Iowa tableaux: stagecraft by the Democrats

Back to the world of the internet, and real-time TV coverage, just soon enough to see the post-caucus statements by the leading candidates. About the Democrats:

John Edwards: attractive candidate, unattractive statement. If all the others who spoke last night (this morning, my time in Beijing) were too patently aware that their bodies might be in Iowa but the audience they cared about was in New Hampshire and beyond, Edwards sounded as if he thought he were still in a living room in Cedar Rapids. It never pays to sound either grudging or angry when down. Even for the plainest operational reasons -- looking good and optimistic for the elections just ahead, not alienating the likely nominee -- and apart from its being the right thing to do, there was no excuse for not naming and congratulating Barack Obama.

Barack Obama: Of course we can't be sure that he'll win the nomination, although that seems likely right now, or that he'll be elected if he is the nominee -- though given the wounded candidates and intellectual collapse on the Republican side, that seems practically a lock. And as Bill Clinton has so helpfully pointed out, it's a roll of the dice what kind of president he would actually be. But to watch his statement live was to realize, even as it was happening, that you were seeing a moment of history people were likely to remember and discuss for a very long time.

Hillary Clinton: Everyone has said everything that can be said about the challenges for her campaign and her message. To me, the scene on camera drowned out anything she said in her statement. She, a trouper, managed a convincing-enough smile and acceptably jaunty "the fight's just begun!" tone. The staff around herself simply looked ashen -- even though as pros they surely recognized that they were on TV just like her, even though as pros they must have known how forcefully body language speaks. One just to the left of her chewed gum grimly and desperately through her speech. Another, to the right, made me think of a family member at an accident scene. (Let me not be coy about this: when looking at him I thought immediately of the stricken face of Bobby Kennedy's loyal aide Frank Mankiewicz forty years ago when he announced at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles that Kennedy had been killed. It's macabre, but it's the visual connection that immediately came to mind.)

And Bill Clinton!!! Who managed a wan smile but for seconds on end stood motionless, as if traumatized or stuffed. Better than anyone else in the country he must understand the situation. The young candidate with the sex appeal and the fun and the magic and the sense of the future and the opportunity to shed the old -- Clinton knows the advantages that candidate has. And he knows full well how feeble the appeals to "experience" and "ready from day one" and "competence and responsibility" were when they were issued sixteen years ago by a candidate who really was superbly prepared and experienced: the incumbent president, eight-year vice president, victorious war commander, former ambassador and CIA director George H. W. Bush.

Update: As several readers have pointed out, one of the people I noticed was not technically a staff member but New York's lieutenant governor, David Paterson. I thought of writing the first time around that if i had been in the U.S. over the last 18 months I might have recognized more of the figures on the stage (apart from Bill and Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright.) And in general I might have used the word "supporters" or "team" rather than "staff," since many were office holders or other luminaries rather than paid assistants. Whoever they were, they looked pretty miserable.