Two of the most famous people in the world are running for president of the United States from different directions. Like Muhammad Ali at the height of his fame as the champ, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could knock on any door almost anywhere in the world and be recognized. Either might even be invited in for a cup of coffee.
Like a champion, both have been lionized and mercilessly criticized for every word and deed. The Donald is the pugilist, the slugger, running when there are no differences of manners and decorum between men and women. He hits Hillary with his verbal jabs as hard as Muhammad Ali hit George Foreman or Joe Frazier with his fists. She comes fighting back (“I am woman, hear me roar”) with rhetoric as hard-hitting as his, dropping the feminine voice and trappings of “gender” and the old-order restraint of a different voice, style and words.
She’s “crooked Hillary.” He’s “dangerously incoherent” and “temperamentally unfit.”
They deserve each other in a media culture that inflates political candidates like balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. Gallantry has vanished and femininity has taken a holiday. Will they deflate before our eyes or keep bobbing along in the spectacle that smash-mouth politics has become?
Hillary’s personality is pinched and guarded, the humorless expression of an embittered schoolmarm. The Donald’s is about shooting from the lip, a take-no-prisoners hard guy with a perverse wit. Her reserve is seen in her hiding from the press; she hasn’t held a real press conference in six months. He prides himself on his spontaneity, saying what he thinks and can create a press conference every time he stops in a different town. He doesn’t always serve himself well.
The two presumptive nominees had very different training camps. Hillary made her chops as a feminist, a governor’s wife in conservative Arkansas at the end of the century, a wife who wouldn’t take her husband’s name until he lost his first campaign for re-election. When his infidelities surfaced, she insisted that she would be no Tammy Wynette, singing as “some little woman standing by my man.” But she learned quickly to dance around a cheatin’ husband, to use his hurtin’ ways as steps toward higher goals. As first lady she politicized the other women in his life by calling them the machinations of “a vast right wing media conspiracy.” She has demonstrated an ability to turn personal humiliation and affront to her advantage. Donald Trump is not hurling insults at a palooka.
Though Hillary has often said she wouldn’t stoop to the Trump style and tone, she threw punches like a street fighter in a speech she promised would be about foreign policy but was mainly an attack on the Trump character and tactics. She took a tip from Muhammad Ali’s warm-up for his “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman, belittling her opponent, building on what others saw as unlikable, throwing out one mean accusation after another.
Mr. Trump faltered briefly. Instead of exploiting the weakest monthly jobs report in six years of Democratic leadership, he began swinging wildly with punch-drunk obtuseness. He changed the subject to a lawsuit against Trump University, which nobody was paying much attention to, and accused the judge of a conflict of interest because of his Mexican heritage.
Hyphenated Americans, which we once thought were mercifully retired, have lately become all the rage, and Mr. Trump stupidly landed a blow below the belt. The judge was born in Indiana, deep in the heartland, and there were legitimate questions of judicial bias, but the Donald did not raise them. He exposed the outsider’s lack of necessary inside experience, making the mistake of failing to separate his personal from the political.
The presumptive nominees of their parties are headed now for a championship bout worthy of that rumble in the jungle. Either may be tempted to play Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy, absorbing the best that can be thrown at him — or her — and waiting to take a turn, and land the knockout.
When the conventions are over and the actual campaign begins, to pursue the boxing metaphor, the campaign is likely to resemble the “Thrilla in Manila” that was Ali’s third fight against Joe Frazier. Ali later said it felt like the closest he ever came to death. Both fighters were exhausted after 14 rounds and the fight ended only when Frazier couldn’t answer the bell to start the 15th round and his corner threw in the towel. It was a thrilla impossible to call until the thrill was gone. This rumble is likely to be that, too.
• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.