As a New York Senator, Hillary Clinton fought like a lion a decade and a half ago on behalf of thousands of first responders who were poisoned by the toxic cloud that hovered over the ruins of the Twin Towers following the terrorist attacks of September 11. She was damaged when the anniversary of that attack was marked by Al-Qaida copycats who attacked the American Consulate in Benghazi, killed four diplomats and gave Clinton’s rivals an excuse to sully her name.
On Sunday, Clinton was harmed once again, on the same site and on the same day, when she felt unwell and was documented buckling and swaying as she abruptly left the September 11 memorial ceremony.
Perhaps one day, to paraphrase the late ’70s hit of the Buggles, people will tell how video killed the Democratic candidate’s prospects. Clinton would have survived the “overheating” that overcame her - her doctor said later she had pneumonia - had she not been photographed from different angles as her knees buckled one after another and then, through the protective shield that her guards and handlers tried to build around her, as she seemed to teeter on the verge of collapse. The videos documenting those moments turned viral within minutes, and this virus, if not eradicated quickly, could prove fatal.
We’ve always said that Clinton would most probably be elected, barring some unforeseen catastrophe. Though it’s too early to tell, these video clips could meet the criteria. Their damage is multiplied many times over because they seem to corroborate the malicious smear campaign about Clinton’s health that Trump and the conservative media have been peddling in recent weeks. They confirm the biases and prejudices of misogynists and other women-defamers who don’t believe females can handle the pressures of the presidency anyway. They cap the very bad, terrible week that Clinton has been having, starting with her steep descent in the polls and culminating in the superfluous description of half of Trump’s voters as “a basket of deplorables.” It was the kind of comment that suited him more than her, but viewed through the prism of Sunday’s incident, it conveyed an impression of uncontrolled confusion.
The images of Clinton lurching and staggering were worth more than the tens of thousands of words that her supporters immediately offered to prove historical precedent. It doesn’t make any difference if Woodrow Wilson concealed three minor strokes before he was elected and a major one that he suffered in the White House, or that Franklin Roosevelt successfully hid his wheelchair for so many years or that John Kennedy did not divulge that he suffered from potentially fatal Addison’s Disease and other serious ailments. It’s not relevant that Jimmy Carter collapsed while running or that George Bush Senior threw up on the Japanese prime minister or that a decade later his son would faint after choking on a pretzel while watching a football game in the White House. None of the above had to contend with the deluge of Tweets, posts, Snapchats and other wonders of the web that amplify every pips a candidate makes a million times over. Most past presidents, if they were running today, would never get close to the White House.
The “overheating” incident immediately launched waves of anxiety among Democrats, adding to their growing realization in recent days that Clinton was far from a shoo-in. The anxiety blossomed to full panic mode when the Clinton campaign’s silence in the hours following her evacuation from the ceremony escalated rumors and sparked suspicions that her advisers were trying to hide something. The statement put out by her physician, Doctor Lisa Bardack, that Clinton had been diagnosed with pneumonia, even if taken at face value, confirmed suspicions that her staff had not been forthcoming about her health. And she should fire whoever allowed her to come to the 9/11 ceremony in such a state, even if it’s herself.
The drama sent legal experts to the Democratic rules book to see what would happen if Clinton decided, or was forced, to leave the race. The answer, it seems, is complicated: the party rules and bylaws give the Democratic National Committee (DNC) the authority to replace a candidate who leaves the race for any reason, and they are seemingly not bound to anyone. In this route, the two contenders could be Clinton’s vice presidential companion, Tim Kaine, and the outgoing Vice President Joe Biden, who has hinted at his regret for not running against Clinton in the first place.
But there is a spanner in the works, and its name is Bernie Sanders. In the tumultuous rush to anoint Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last month, few people paid attention to Sanders’ careful choice of words in his endorsement of his rival. “I move that the convention suspend the procedural rules. I move that all votes, all votes cast by delegates be reflected in the official record, and I move that Hillary Clinton be selected as the nominee of the Democratic Party for president of the United States.” Sanders said. He did not remove his own candidacy, he did not commit the votes in his favor to Clinton and some of his supporters are saying that when the convention suspended all the procedural rules, as he proposed, that includes the DNC’s authority to replace Clinton if she left the race. Instead, the nomination should pass automatically to the candidate next in line, the one who never suspended his own race, and his name just happens to be Bernie Sanders.
Of course, the reports of Clinton’s political demise could be premature, exaggerated or completely baseless, especially in an election season in which the only thing that can be reasonably be expected is a big surprise. Her diagnosis of pneumonia, which should be treatable, should actually calm some of her fans’ jitters. The incident at the September 11 memorial gives Trump new momentum but experience shows that any moment now he will say something outrageous that will focus attention back on him: this is especially true if he is now struck by hubris because he believes the Gods are intervening on his behalf. And notwithstanding whatever infirmity struck her on Sunday, Clinton has proven time and time again that she is stubborn and tenacious and never one to surrender. If she can prove that despite the troublesome video images she is indeed fit as a fiddle and raring to go; if she instills a false sense of invincibility in Trump and then clobbers him in the first debate on September 26; if she creates a narrative in which she is just as much a “comeback kid” as her husband was in the 1992 presidential race; if she does all of these, then Clinton can still turn her setback into a resounding victory.
The next few days will be critical. Every word Clinton says will be examined close, every gesture she makes will be scrutinized under a microscope. If she passes the test, she’ll survive and possibly emerge stronger, but if she stumbles again her fate could be sealed. Her feebleness on Sunday drove home to her supporters that in less than two months, Donald Trump, whom they view as a crook, a racist, a charlatan and an egomaniac, could be elected president. To prevent that, they will give Clinton a second chance but they won’t hesitate to demand her head if it’s deemed essential to protecting America and the world from a nightmarish Trump presidency.