Freedom of speech came on stage armor-plated in a bright orange pant suit as Hillary Clinton's "Let's all get in the pool together for Obama'' speech Tuesday night that had less to say about him than about her.

Her words were politically correct. She was strong and controlling. But the what-might-have-been reminders of what her party was giving up were more than subliminal, and she had less to say about Obama's political virtues than might have been hoped for.

No wonder repeated camera trips to where Bill Clinton was sitting failed to find him with anything other than an ear-splitting grin on his face.

Presidential politics being what they are, trying to keep a stiff upper lip when ambitions go south the way these have for the Clintons and their supporters is unique because this was to have been the year when not just one woman, but women took their place in the pantheon of presidents of the United States. The subplot for Bill Clinton was to be back, period.

Democrats were supposed to have had an easy go of it this time around. George W. Bush had been grievously bloodied over and again by self-inflicted wounds as well as those from a vice president with a genius for mistaking targets. Then along came Barack Obama, a model of grace, intelligence, wit and considerable substance, and what was to have been a reasonably comfortable journey to the White House for Democrats brought entirely unexpected complications for both the Clintons and their party.

While the Democrat vote may be reasonably well-defined, the outcome against McCain will be decided by the great swath of marginally aligned and unaligned voters.

There are many ways to define Americans because we are such a culturally and economically diverse people spread over and beyond a vast continent, a reality that impresses itself upon us during presidential elections. Small wonder that our presidential campaigns are what they are, filled with passion in all its forms, sinfully expensive, both inclusive and divisive. For candidates, they are exhausting, and this one has been in play for four years.

What we have witnessed this week has been the end of a long and torturous journey to the starting line for Barack Obama and a political wake for those of Hillary Clinton. It has been a testing time for both him and his supporters, but it has been a greater and more significant one for the nation. It offers some clarity on the degree of progress we have made in accepting realities attending diversity.

America has the lion's share of the world's cultures because we have always been its come-to place. The paradox is that while our Statue of Liberty welcomes those from "away,'' those not "one of us'' have faced prejudice in all its manifestations throughout our history.

Most grievous among those have been endured by what are now called "people of color,'' and the success of Barack Obama's choice by Democrats is a major statement to both the nation and the world of our social progress.

His has been a particularly challenging testing because his chief opponent was a woman, and our history has not been kind to women. Their struggle for political and economic equality has been parallel to that of blacks who had to start from much further back for freedom and acceptance. Blacks were first to be elected to Congress before them, and now one will run for president.

Small wonder then, the passion of women for the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Small wonder the resentment of so many that is bound to become part of the burden Obama must bear in the remaining testing of not only himself, but of America.

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Bill Plante is former executive editor of Essex County Newspapers. His e-mail address is plantejr@comcast.net.

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