There were no signs of political clouds under the sky-blue ceiling of the cavernous hotel ballroom where Hillary Clinton basked in the admiration of hundreds of her most ardent and powerful supporters Tuesday night in Washington at the 30th Anniversary Gala honoring Emily’s List.
After perhaps the worst day of her post-State Department political life, Clinton earned roaring standing ovations and innumerable calls to run for president from more than 1,600 women who came to support the group that helps elect Democratic women.
The nearly-declared presidential candidate beamed while being praised as a ceiling-cracker and path-breaker, and took in waves of applause every time a speaker hinted at her all-but-certain 2016 presidential run.
There was no mention from Clinton or anyone else with a microphone, however, of the email controversy that dominated headlines over the past 24 hours, nor questions about foreign government contributions to her family’s charitable foundation.
Instead, all Clinton felt tonight was love. “One of the most impressive, dedicated, ready-to-get-to-work, jam-packed ballrooms you’ll ever find in Washington,” as Democratic strategist Tracy Sefl, an adviser to Clinton’s 2008 campaign, put it.
Ellen Malcolm, who founded Emily’s List in 1985 and co-chaired Clinton’s first presidential campaign, worked the crowd into a froth by getting right to the heart of what everyone wanted to hear, but few are willing say. “In 2008, Hillary Clinton put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling. In 2016 it’s time to shatter that glass ceiling and put a woman in the White House. It’s time to finish the job,” she said.
All the innuendo and coyness that typically accompany references to Clinton’s 2016 plans at public appearance was destroyed in a roar of applause that lasted the better part of a minute.
“Well, Hillary?” Malcom said when the crowd finally grew quiet, looking down at the former secretary of state sitting at a nearby table to her right. “You heard us. Just give the word and we’ll be right at your side.”
While Clinton was being painted as a deceitful and self-serving politician on airwaves and in headlines outside, in this room, she was the fruition of 30 years of hard work to advance women in politics – leading up to, one day maybe, the White House.
Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski was almost as big of a draw as Clinton, having announced her retirement yesterday. In a night full of leaders saying they would “not be here were it not for Emily’s List,” it was especially true for Mikulski, the first woman endorsed by Emily’s List and the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right.
She was eager to pass the baton. “In 2016 we will elect a Democratic woman president – and you know who I’m talking about,” she said to cheers. “Don’t get mad, get elected.”
No one could resist pushing past the pretense of Clinton as a non-candidate.Celebrity “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi called Clinton “our next president.” Former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, still struggling to speak after being shot in 2011, praised women in office and “maybe soon, in the White House.” Sen. Al Franken joked that Clinton’s new granddaughter should call her “POTUS.”
California Attorney General Kamala Harris, one of the Democratic Party’s brightest rising stars, expressed joy at the “possibility that for the first time in our nation, we might have a woman as president.”
And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made the hard sell: “When she runs, and when she wins, it will make her one of the most qualified presidents in the history of the United State of America.”
The unanimous devotion at a women’s group from so many Democratic donors, operatives, and elected officials is a scene that would have been hard to imagine in 2008, when the party was split about who should be their nominee and Clinton downplayed her gender.
Nearly everyone in the massive Washington Hilton ballroom, which hosts the annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner, cheered at each mention, even as the ceremony dragged on longer than the Academy Awards.
Finally, Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock took the stage to introduce the main event.
In a riff that seemed written especially for a day Clinton would likely prefer to forget (but aides said was not), Schriock praised Clinton’s resilience in the face of political assault. “Nobody in American political history has faced more unfair attacks, more desperate opposition, more overwhelming adversity than Hillary,” Schriock said. “She has shown us all how to shake off the setbacks, ignore the haters, and keep the focus on moving our country forward.”
By the time Clinton took the stage around 10 p.m., after nearly three hour of constant praise, she was relaxed and happy, cracking jokes about pantsuits and ribbing Mikulski for her short stature and Franken for his short political resume.
Her speech stuck close to themes about economic and gender empowerment that she laid out last week in Silicon Valley, and included no references to news of the world or controversies closer to home.
“I want to answer one question right at the start before it stirs up Twitter,” Clinton said, perking up reporters in the back of the room. “People have read a lot of different things into my pantsuits … despite what you might actually think, this outfit is not actually white and gold,” she said, playing off a recent Internet meme. (She was wearing purple.)
Like other speakers, Clinton included praise for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren: “Its because of you that Elizabeth Warren can work to hold Wall Street accountable.”
But even Clinton couldn’t resist a tease about her future. “Don’t you someday want to see a woman president?” Clinton said, smiling warmly as the crowd got to their feet again.
And then, back out into a cold night in a Washington abuzz with its latest scandal.