THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Television Review

Calm meets indignant at debate

Email|Print| Text size + By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / February 27, 2008

So we now know for sure that Hillary Clinton watches "Saturday Night Live" - the relevant sketches, at least. At one especially bitter point in last night's MSNBC debate, after complaining that she kept "getting the first question" on tough topics, Clinton referenced the first scene from last week's show: a faux debate that poked fun at the media's affection for Barack Obama.

"Maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow," Clinton said.

It wasn't Clinton's most flattering moment; she seemed perilously close to declaring some sort of vast media conspiracy. But it seemed a calculated moment for Clinton, too. Last night, as she played the role of the frustrated challenger, she also tried to prove that righteous indignation can be a political asset.

Clinton has to tread a delicate line between honest fighting spirit and blind swinging. But she also had a mandate to be angry last night, since some interpreted her graciousness at last week's CNN debate as a concession of defeat.

Over the last week, Clinton has been famously feisty on the campaign trail, occasionally looking desperate. In TV clips from an appearance in Boston this week, she was hoarse and visibly drained.

If this debate shed light on anything, in fact, it was the difference between the coached, mostly-controlled demeanor in these televised forums and the far-grittier groundwork of day-to-day campaigning. Both candidates admitted to waging attacks and sending out incendiary mailings. But Clinton, playing the challenger role, seemed to take it all more personally.

When Obama said, of her vote to authorize the Iraq war, that "she was ready to give in to George Bush on day one," Clinton looked at him glaringly. Obama, throughout, carried himself more as a frontrunner does: calm, collected, unflappable, cautious.

Brian Williams, who shared moderating duties with Tim Russert, was equally calm, making light jokes and asking mostly-open-ended questions. Across the table, Russert played the pit bull. Here, Clinton had no grounds for complaints about unequal treatment; Russert wouldn't stop hammering Obama about his endorsement from Louis Farrakhan, even after Obama quickly denounced the Nation of Islam leader.

Russert also used his "Meet The Press" modus operandi of impeaching candidates with their own words, tried to trip up the candidates on the details of Russian politics, and battered them both with imaginary world problems. At last, Clinton lashed out; if she was girding for a fight, Russert ultimately proved a better foil.

"You know, Tim, you ask a lot of hypotheticals," she said during one exchange.

"This is reality," Russert said.

"No, it isn't reality," she shot back.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com

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