THE BLOG

Geffen's Hillary Criticism Is 'Nothing I Haven't Heard From Women Voters Across America'

WASHINGTON - Just this once, Hollywood is perfectly in sync with Middle America, with David Geffen faithfully channeling Main Street, U.S.A.

As Geffen goes, so goes Kansas City?

All I can tell you is, everything he told Maureen Dowd last week - about his own feeling that Hillary Clinton is just too polarizing, and poll-tested out the ying-yang - is nothing I hadn't heard over and over in 18 months worth of interviews with women voters across the political spectrum, in 20 states from Massachusetts to Arizona and Oregon to Louisiana.

Geffen, who raised millions for Bill Clinton, told Dowd, "I don't think that another incredibly polarizing figure, no matter how smart she is...can bring the country together.''

Or as Mary Jane Arrington, a former Democratic county official in Florida's Osceola County put it to me, "I think Bill Clinton could get reelected, but I don't think Hillary can, and I hope she's smart enough to know that. She's smart, but she comes across as a pushy woman. She's not the right one, and to break the glass ceiling, you have to be the right one.''

Around the country, the comments were the same. In Denver, food writer Ellen Sweet, an African American woman who has never voted for a Republican in her life, said Clinton, "talks out of both sides of her mouth, and I'm not voting for her just because she's a woman. The only way I'd vote for her is if her husband could be vice president.'' In Sacramento, a young Medicare billing clerk named Emily Timmons called Hillary the only Democrat she could not see herself ever supporting: "She's trying to move to the center, but not in a sensible way, like "We can take care of the environment and help business. Instead, she's going against flag burning.''

I met them on the long road trip I took after the '04 presidential election. It all started because I was not what you would call buoyed by the news that George W. Bush had been returned to the White House. (If you ever read where I've said he was "re-elected,'' you'll know that some copy editor has had his way with me.) For therapeutic as much as journalistic reasons, I really wanted to hear what voters were thinking. And the only thing I knew to do was ask them.

In particular, I wondered why the gender gap had narrowed, what security moms, disparate housewives and women in general were focused on when they voted in '04 -- and what they were looking for in a candidate in '08. So, with the remarkable luxury of no theory to prove, and no preconceived storyline in my pocket, I roamed the country for the next year and a half, listening to women talk about their political lives in depth and at length for If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear, which Simon & Schuster is bringing out in May.

What this totally unscientific opposite of a poll of exactly 234 randomly chosen women sitting around talking convinced me they want Hillary to hear is: Please, no.

These were not at all like the newspaper and magazine interviews I'd been doing for 20 years in that I tried very hard not to push, prod, provoke or even nail down concrete answers to specific questions. For the most part, I asked no questions at all, beyond, "What gives?'' Or, "So what are you thinking for '08?" I never mentioned specific candidates.

But from left, right and center, when Hillary's name did come up - and there weren't many times when it didn't - it was with either a sigh or a diatribe. On the left, she was pilloried as a sell-out, particularly on the war in Iraq. On the right, no explanation required. And from the swing-voting center, repeated complaints about a perceived lack of authenticity: "What turns me off about Hillary,'' said Kristen Aston, a 30-something real estate agent and registered independent in Kissimmee, Florida, "is I don't feel the realness from her.''

Literally the nicest thing I heard about Hillary in 18 months was also from a Floridian, a strong Democrat named Ann May, who lives in Tampa and has a Polaroid on her fridge of the senator with Ann's grandchild, taken at a long-ago campaign rally for Bill Clinton: "I like Hillary,'' she said, "but I'm afraid she's the only one who could keep the Democrats from winning. She'd draw so many people out to vote against her that wouldn't come out otherwise.''

After a while, I came to dread the mention of her name, because it usually meant I would hear no more on any other topic that day. Looking back, I would be hard pressed to say whether it was conservatives or liberals who minded her more intensely. But the feeling they had in common was, "Anybody but her.'' And only in that way, I'm afraid, is she any more of a "uniter, not a divider'' than the act she'd like to follow.

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