Is Clinton’s problem as basic as her voice?

It was perhaps the most memorable line of perhaps the most memorable moment of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president. The night she won New Hampshire, in an upset that seemed as much a surprise to her as to everyone else, the candidate strode out before a sea of supporters in the cavernous gym of Manchester’s Southern New Hampshire University. After being silenced for several minutes by roaring applause, she began her victory speech. Her words thundered over the supporters gathered around her: “Over the last week, I listened to you,” Clinton boomed, “and, in the process, I found my own voice.”

Well, as Clinton herself is fond of saying on the stump, as if her speech were a yearbook and her audience were, collectively, that kid from homeroom she only sorta knows: What a long, strange trip it’s been. Since that unusually warm January day in New Hampshire, we’ve seen Clinton’s momentum go from “speed” to “stall.” And, along the way, that powerful voice of New Hampshire’s primary night—metaphorical, even metaphysical—has shed its transcendent quality to become, in pundits’ minds, the embodiment of the Clinton campaign’s frenetic brand of fragility. “Her public voice in the month since winning New Hampshire was all over the range: from thoughtful and classy to biting and harsh, all in a day’s work,” Jamie Stiehm wrote in the Huffington Post. And of course, as it careened it ceased to be a source of empowerment; Clinton’s voice itself is now a liability.

“After saying she found her ‘voice’ in New Hampshire, she has turned into Sybil,” Maureen Dowd declared in yesterday’s column.

We’ve had Experienced Hillary, Soft Hillary, Hard Hillary, Misty Hillary, Sarcastic Hillary, Joined-at-the-Hip-to-Bill Hillary, Her-Own-Person-Who-Just-Happens-to-Be-Married-to-a-Former-President Hillary, It’s-My-Turn Hillary, Cuddly Hillary, Let’s-Get-Down-in-the-Dirt-and-Fight-Like-Dogs Hillary.

Dowd’s litany is, as so many Dowdian litanies tend to be, unfair—she would do well to point out that we’ve also had Liberal Barack, Post-Partisan Barack, African-American Barack, Post-Racial Barack, etc. (and that those varying labels aren’t just ascribed by pundits; they’re assigned by the Obama campaign itself). It’s part of the game for politicians to present varying facets of themselves to voters, both actual and potential, at a given moment in the campaign; indeed, what divides shape-shifting from flip-flopping in politics is little more than savvy. Everyone shifts; the “flip-floppers” are merely the ones who get called on it.

In Clinton’s case, though, the “schizophrenic” label sticks. (It would stick to anyone whose personality has multiple dimensions—which is to say, it would stick to anyone.) And it does so, in part, through pundits’ somewhat odd fixation on Clinton’s voice.

Take the candidate’s (um, attempted) mockery of Obama this weekend, the rather unfortunate speech now shorthanded as Clinton’s “celestial choirs” takedown. (“Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified. The sky will open. The lights will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.”) Clinton’s Sarcastic Turn wasn’t derided merely as “unattractive”; pundits also went out of their way to single out her voice as the specific agent of all the ugliness. It was “terrifyingly shrill,” New York magazine wrote. As Joe Scarborough put it during an appearance on Hardball, “there is a shrillness in Hillary that comes out on TV whenever she gets excited about something….Every time her voice goes up, she gets very shrill, very un-Clinton-like, if you’re talking about Bill Clinton.”

Tucker Carlson agreed. “It raises the question,” he declared, “Could you actually live in this country for eight years having to listen to her voice?”

Carlson doesn’t bother to explain what about Clinton’s timbre, exactly, makes him shiver. But it likely has at least something to do with what Stanley Fish observed in a recent New York Times column:

If she answers questions aggressively, she is shrill. If she moderates her tone, she’s just play-acting. If she cries, she’s faking. If she doesn’t, she’s too masculine. If she dresses conservatively, she’s dowdy. If she doesn’t, she’s inappropriately provocative.

In other words, the female Maybe-44 is caught in a web of Catch-22s—and she becomes more and more entangled as her campaign grows, it seems, increasingly desperate in its moods and methods.

And that desperation has led to the devolution of the empowered New Hampshire Voice, capital V, to a voice of victimization (oh-so-lower-case). Take the “get Barack a pillow” moment in Tuesday’s Ohio debate—a low point, to be sure: it rarely behooves a candidate, male or female, to complain about maltreatment, however valid the complaints may be. And the press pounced. “Hillary Clinton plays the victim card,” the Politico announced, managing, in a mere six words, to convey a sense of both disapproval and inevitability.

And here’s The New York Times’s take:

Mrs. Clinton decided to fight back by playing herself as victim, referring to an “S.N.L.” skit that viewers are more likely to have seen than anything else, that Mr. Obama is being coddled while she is being throttled. She pressed her point by complaining that she is usually asked to answer first. But had she gone second, she could just as easily have used that as evidence that her younger opponent gets preferential treatment—or an extra pillow—from the press.

Perhaps Clinton was espousing the idea—popular, but impossible to prove—that she won New Hampshire because of her “misty moment.” Perhaps, she figured, the victim card just works for her: it makes her an empathetic figure, and rallies her troops to her aid.

If so, however, she figured wrong. There are few things less presidential than victimhood. And—and here’s the rub—there are even fewer things less presidential than complaining about that victimhood. (As Dowd rather elegantly had it, “Beating on the press is the lamest thing you can do.”) That’s where Clinton is really stumbling; the word “voice” itself, as applied to her, has become, if not fully synonymous with, then at least analogous to…“whining.” When the candidate asserts herself, the liability isn’t (just) the standard one—being seen as a bitch; it’s also, and more so, being seen as a grouch.

Take Pat Buchanan, speaking on Morning Joe on Tuesday:

PAT BUCHANAN: It’s very tough for a woman. You see two men going back and forth at each other, you say, “Boy, they’re really going at it.” You see two women, or something, and you say, “Boy, what a catfight this is.”

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: That’s what’s so unfair….You think about what she said over the weekend, the sound bites that have been isolated, and imagine those coming from the mouth of a male candidate. And he’d look strong, and aggressive—like a fighter. And what’s happening here, with Hillary?

BUCHANAN: Well, frankly, it’s the voice. To be—look, Barack Obama’s got a very deep voice. He can go out, he can use mockery and ridicule, and he comes off very smooth and pleasant. But when she raises her voice, and when a lot of women do, you know it’s, as I say, it’s—it makes you support what every husband in America has heard at one time or another.

BRZEZINSKI: Oh, Pat, you’re lucky you’re not here in the studio. I’m telling you…

BUCHANAN: …I know that’s a sexist comment—

BRZEZINSKI: It totally is!

BUCHANAN: —but there’s truth to it. There’s truth to it. It’s very difficult for women to reach those kinds of levels effectively as it is to make them sort of a rally speech. They’re not good at that.

Indeed. I believe the word Buchanan is dancing around/groping for, in all his talk of husbands and voice-raising, is…“nag.” Which is telling. Because, to state the obvious, Clinton’s voice isn’t just Clinton’s voice; it’s also a woman’s voice, and everything else that that implies. That fact may not be the point of all the voice-overing when it comes to Clinton, but it’s certainly the subtext. It seems that we—myself included—spent so much time fixating on the traditional Woman in Power problem (and where we, as a society, will draw that classic, fuzzy line between assertiveness and bitchiness) that we initially missed the other side of the problem: the even fuzzier, and even more classic, line between self-assertiveness and victimhood. Because Hillary’s biggest problem, due respect to Tina Fey, isn’t that she’s a bitch. It’s that she won’t stop complaining about people calling her one.

In that sense, Clinton’s voice—metaphorical and literal—has become, perhaps, a little too revealing. About her, but especially about us.

Compare Clinton to Obama, who, in matters of timbre, is, apparently, MLK, JFK, and Mel Tormé rolled into one velvet-voiced demigod. Salon has an entire piece today analyzing Obama’s voice (“Does Obama’s baritone give him an edge?”)—complete with expert testimony as to the voice’s being, no joke, “the window into the heart,” and other such profundities—and illustrated with a doctored photo that casts Hillary as Lucy (her voice high, thin, and often—yes—shrill) and Barack as Ricky (his voice smooth, bold—and good enough, after all, to be a basis of his career). The piece summons the spirit of Chris thrill-up-the-leg Matthews in its treatment of the visceral splendor of Obama’s voice:

When it happens that something within us shivers or tingles at the words of a great and moving voice—Martin Luther King Jr. for my generation, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt for my parents, or even perhaps for some others Benito Mussolini—it is because there is something that leaps forth from the very anatomy of the speaker, revealing the innate grain that vibrates with a receptive grain of our own.

Now, compare that to one of the piece’s analyses of The Meaning of the Female Voice:

We wouldn’t want our hectoring mother speaking to us from the White House for the next four years.

Indeed. That says a lot—in whatever voice you say it.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.