WASHINGTON — Hillary blew it.
That was the instant reaction in the room where I watched Tuesday night's State of the Union address. It was such a simple thing, but the senator from New York missed her cue.
It was this: smile and show the nice people that you're a human being and that you have a sense of humor.
But no. When President George W. Bush tossed a valentine to her husband, former President Bill Clinton, the senator sat stone-faced, nary a crack in her facade.
Catty? Not at all. Shaken, perhaps, but not stirred.
Truthfully, I'm pulling for everyone deep down. I have no bone to pick with Hillary Clinton, no wish to see her stumble. But I admit to being fascinated and I watch her closely. I especially watch her when she's out of sight; listen when she's quiet. You learn a lot about people not just by what they say, but by what they don't say.
Or by what they don't do, where they don't show up. With a Clinton, no move is accidental. And she is, of course, considered the most likely Democratic candidate for president in 2008. Could she win?
Polls indicate that people are ready to support a woman for the highest office and that being female is no longer an obstacle. In fact, at this juncture, it may be an asset. Tipping points and all that.
Certainly, Clinton is qualified to be president. Smart and well-educated, she's fluent on issues and hard-working. She's also managed a difficult marriage in plain view and has raised a well-adjusted daughter whose success any parent would envy.
So what is it about Hillary that sets some people off? That thing — what is it?
I've had a hundred conversations with people who can't quite put their finger on the reason Clinton is such a lightning rod. Or why some dislike her with such visceral intensity. Many don't just disagree with her; they can't stand her.
Yet, by other accounts, people who know her love her. Those who have met her attest to her charm, intelligence and decency. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with Hillary Clinton, no critical resume gap.
She's not evil, obviously, but her enemies would have you think otherwise. Why?
The answer may have revealed itself during Bush's speech.
Clinton is surely self-aware enough to know that wherever she is, the camera will seek her out. Thus, her response to public events has to be measured, safe and controlled, if not studied. She's not going to be rearranging her skirt during the most important speech of the presidential year, in other words.
Predictably at such times, she doesn't show approval of the president's policies. Like other Democrats in the audience, she carefully selects when she'll applaud, when she'll stand. Sometimes members of the minority party display a little confusion.
Wait, we're life-affirming, right? I mean, we like life, but could we take that with just a sprinkling of stem cells?
Fine, stand up slowly, sit down quickly.
Inevitably, when Bush made the one light comment of the evening, which happened to make reference to her husband, the camera zoomed to Hillary Clinton. Her lips, painted crimson, were a bright beacon in a sea of dark suits.
Bush was discussing stresses to the Social Security system and mentioned that the first baby boomers were turning 60, including two of his father's favorite people. We're waiting to hear George and maybe Jeb Bush when he says, "Me and President Bill Clinton."
Badaboom! Pan to Hillary.
Nothing, nada, zip. Cheekbones bouncing light back to the fluorescent gods, her ruby lips a door slammed shut for all eternity to the minions of mirth. My mind immediately free-associates to the ancient vampires in Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles," who, cold and bloodless through the ages, had turned to stone.
Clinton was the sphinx the joker couldn't budge. If eyes could emasculate, Hillary's would send a man into the high octaves.
I don't know what was going through Clinton's mind in that moment, but her expression said, "Bug off," or sentiments to that effect. What we do know is that Bill Clinton would have loved it. And laughed. And reminded Americans of his humanness and his ready sense of humor.
His wife, by defining contrast, showed the world that she is something else. That thing — what is it? It is what she isn't: human, gracious and humorous.