Hillary Clinton was scheduled to visit Los Angeles Southwest College on Saturday morning, and the T-shirts were out in full force -- most of them for Clinton, and one for Jackie Robinson. The man six or seven places behind me in line sported a Dodgers jersey with the number 42, which Major League Baseball has retired in honor of its first modern black player. When I got a chance to talk to its wearer, he noted that he had obtained it at a recent game ("The Dodgers gave me this perfect prop") and that he saw a thematic tie between its honoree and LASC's guest of honor. "The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, right?" he enthused. "And the other day, where did Hillary debate Bernie? Brooklyn! So there's the connection."
That man was the only attendee I saw wearing sports regalia, but the crowd made it plain that Hillary -- we usually, it seems, call her by her first name -- amounted to an underdog hero, and not just for women. One man in line sported a shirt with a portrait of the former secretary of state and the words "Move Over, Boys" surrounding it; another wore a confident-looking closeup of Hillary with the slogan "Like a Boss." When Assemblyman Mike Gipson warmed up the crowd before Clinton's speech, he went out of his way to cite gender: The rhetorical question "Are you ready for the next president of the United States of America?" was quickly followed by "Are you ready for the next female president of the United States of America?" At several points, Hillary team members led the crowd in chants of "I'm with her!" It seems doubtful that a male politician's supporters would pick a slogan as generic as "I'm with him."
Obviously, there's more than gender attached to that slogan. Women have tried and failed repeatedly in the past to score nominations for president, and if Clinton weren't in the running in 2016, there's no reason to doubt that two men would land on the ballot again. But she appears to be a lock for the nomination, and any candidate with her resume -- especially against competition as divisive as hers -- looks hard to defeat. When I quizzed Hillary supporters in line about their reasons for backing her, they spoke about her experience more than the prospect of having America's first female president in office. A pair of men behind me said they preferred Clinton's pragmatic approach over Bernie Sanders' "pie in the sky" optimism; several people cited the fact that her foreign policy experience topped that of Sanders, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. One woman said she admired Clinton's background as a lawyer and added that the former first lady had "the best man in the world" beside her. (When I clarified that she was talking about Bill Clinton, she noted how Hillary had shown strength by "standing by her man" during his infidelities.)
Plain and simple, some people just like Hillary the best of any candidate. Still, the outpouring of feminist sentiment at LASC showed that, while gender may not be center stage during the 2016 campaign, it's at least a pleasing background. Whether in the White House or in the multiplex or on the radio, our society appears to relish strong women now -- unless "relish" is too shallow a word for something so key to human civilization and progress. (The late Christopher Hitchens, not always renowned for his enlightened views on females, still declared outright that the best cure for poverty was the empowerment of women.) As the crowd gathered outside the Cox Library on campus Saturday morning, chest-beating anthems like Rachel Platten's "Fight Song" and Katy Perry's "Roar" blared from the speakers. At the movies in the last year, we've had gritty heroines in the new Star Wars and Mad Max installments, plus a female rabbit cop in the animated Zootopia; even Pixar's Inside Out tracks the emotions inside the head of an 11-year-old whose greatest passion is rough-and-tumble ice hockey. Perhaps we're entering a world where "You fight like a girl" won't be the playground taunt it used to be.
Eight years ago, when Barack Obama was on the verge of scoring the Democratic nomination, a friend told me that his main reason for voting for Obama (over, it should be noted, Hillary herself) was the pure and simple idea of having him in the White House. "I look at him on TV, and he looks the way I want my president to look," he said. "And I hear him give a speech, and he sounds the way I want my president to sound." Some people who queued up at LASC didn't seem to have thought much more about it than that; one woman, after expressing general praise about Hillary's character and credentials, mentioned Trump and asked me, earnestly, "Now, what are his positions again?" If voting in America required passing a test on the intricacies of NATO or the economic repercussions of raising the minimum wage, few people would likely ace it. As part of our freedom, we may pick one candidate over another for the most trivial reasons possible: support for a single issue, better hair, funnier Twitter posts. Sometimes, all it takes is a person who looks and sounds like our ideal vision of the president. After all, we'll spend the next four years seeing and hearing that person a lot.
Obama ruffled some feathers in 2008 when, during a debate, he quipped, "You're likable enough, Hillary." It seemed like a patronizing comment toward a woman politician, not that charisma doesn't factor hugely into male politicians' chances as well. Is Hillary likable, then? I think she is -- although, of course, it depends on what you like. She's not demure or gentle, and her flat, sometimes raspy voice is jolting more than soothing; Jimmy Carter, for one, might lose a shouting match against her. Still, she has an informal charm and seems quick with a laugh or smile -- the kind of woman, in short, that you would share a beer with rather than a cup of tea. I should note by now that, Saturday at LASC, most of us only saw her for about two minutes; she stepped outside the library and spoke before TV cameras before heading inside, where the lucky few at the head of the line got to sit in on her main speech. The microphones didn't broadcast her comments, so we could only hear bits about "balancing" something and needing voters to turn out for the June 7 California primary. When she went inside, the speakers played Katy Perry et al for what seemed like half an hour, and then we listened to her speech: the expected talking points about renewable energy, equal pay, affordable tuition, reproductive rights and so on. At one point, she chided the GOP for being ignorant about climate change and noted the presence of "some science teachers here at Southwest College who can help the Republicans." That line got a big cheer from the crowd.
When the speech ended, the security guards announced that Hillary wouldn't be making another appearance outside, and the crowd gradually dwindled. On my way back to the parking garage, I walked behind a woman with a son who looked about two, and who insisted doggedly that he didn't like girls because they were "stupid." His mother, feigning hurt feelings, asked, "But I'm a girl. Don't you like me?" The boy begrudgingly replied that he did. In sixteen years or so, he may cast a vote for the second woman president. Before then, Zootopia awaits him.