By Jules Witcover: The ambitions of women to crack the glass ceiling suffered a major setback the other day when Hillary Clinton said categorically that she will never again run for president.
WASHINGTON — The ambitions of women to crack the glass ceiling suffered a major setback the other day when Hillary Clinton said categorically that she will never again run for president. Ignoring Barack Obama's famous sermon about the audacity of hope, her statement was a conspicuous refusal to follow the old Jesse Jackson admonition to the downtrodden to keep hope alive.
The women of America may not quite qualify as oppressed these days. Still, the former first lady's announcement will be a blow to their long-held dream of electing one of their own as the first female president.
After her very strong showing as a presidential candidate last year, and her impressive display of campaigning talent against the phenomenon of Barack Obama, she clearly remains head and shoulders above any other woman in American politics.
Defeated candidates often lose luster and appeal, but that certainly has not been the case with Hillary Clinton. Her selection as Obama's secretary of state, and her early performance in the job, have only boosted her popularity and esteem. The most recent Gallup Poll has her rated higher than Obama, at 62 percent approval, to 56 for the president.
Clinton's flat rejection of further presidential ambitions was marked in a television interview not only by its decisiveness but by the seeming joy with which she uttered and repeated it. She emphasized her contentment as secretary of state, calling it "a great job, a 24/7 job," adding "I'm looking forward to retirement at some point."
Her age, to be sure, would make another presidential try problematic.
In less than two weeks, on Oct. 26, she will be 62 years old, and assuming Obama were to seek and win a second term in 2012, she would be approaching 68 when embarking on a second campaign in 2015, and 69 were she to be elected the next year.
On the other hand, if Obama for some reason were not to run again in 2012 or to run and lose, she could expect considerable pressure from American women to try again in her mid-60s. And it's a prudent axiom in politics to never say never. Fellow Democrat Al Gore may well have regretted his decision not to run again after his narrow and highly contested defeat for the presidency in 2000, especially when Democratic nominee John Kerry came so close to winning four years later.
History offers another memorable case of the folly of saying never again.
In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt decided not to seek another term after nearly two full terms. He helped elect William Howard Taft, but when they had a falling out, Roosevelt challenged him for the Republican nomination in 1912. He lost but ran as a third-party candidate, splitting the Republican vote, leading to the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
At any rate, it's hard to imagine Hillary Clinton fading into quiet political retirement after her tour as secretary of state. She also said she had no intention of returning to the Senate where she served effectively for eight years from New York. Without another Democratic woman on the scene to generate the sort of enthusiasm she brought to the women's political movement last year, she is likely to face continuing pleas to reconsider her categorical "No."
The most prominent woman in the Senate now, Dianne Feinstein of California, is 76 years old, and fellow-Californian House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 69, and as a conspicuous liberal from San Francisco is the favorite target of the Republican Party with many critics in the moderate wing of her own party. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri gained some attention last year as a frequent campaign surrogate for Obama, but has been in the Senate less than three years.
Of the only three Democratic state governors who are women, Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, 40, has star appeal, but she will be term-limited out of office in 2011 and her popularity has dropped as her state has been severely hit by the auto industry decline.
Since the old adage says it's a woman's prerogative to change her mind, the Democrats could yet see Hillary Clinton do so when the next opportunity presents itself for another crack at the presidency. Few would be surprised if that were to happen.
Jules Witcover's latest book, on the Nixon-Agnew relationship, "Very Strange Bedfellows," has just been published by Public Affairs Press. You can respond to this column at email@example.com.