WASHINGTON — Even newly armored by the spirit of Camelot, Barack Obama is still distressed by the sight of a certain damsel.
It's already famous as The Snub, the moment before the State of the Union when Obama turned away to talk to Claire McCaskill instead of trying to join Teddy Kennedy in shaking hands with Hillary.
Nobody cared about W., whose presidency had crumpled into a belated concern about earmarks.
The only union that fascinated was Obama and Hillary, once more creeping around each other.
It would have been the natural thing for the Illinois senator, only hours after his emotional embrace by the Kennedys and an arena full of deliriously shrieking students, to follow the lead of Uncle Teddy and greet the rebuffed Hillary.
She was impossible to miss in the sea of dark suits and Supreme Court dark robes. Like Scarlett O'Hara after a public humiliation, Hillary showed up at the gathering wearing a defiant shade of red.
But the fact that he didn't do so shows that Obama cannot hide how much the Clintons rattle him, and that he is still taking the race very personally.
On a flight to Kansas on Tuesday to collect another big endorsement, this one from Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Obama said he was "surprised" by reports of The Snub.
"I was turning away because Claire asked me a question as Sen. Kennedy was reaching forward," he said. "Sen. Clinton and I have had very cordial relations off the floor and on the floor. I waved at her as I was coming into the Senate chamber before we walked over last night. I think there is just a lot more tea leaf reading going on here than I think people are suggesting."
But that answer is disingenuous. Their relations have been frosty and fraught ever since the young Chicago prince challenged Queen Hillary's royal proclamation that it was her turn to rule.
Last winter, after news broke that he was thinking of running, he winked at her and took her elbow on the Senate floor to say hi, in his customary languid, friendly way, and she coldly brushed him off.
It bothered him, and he called a friend to say: You would not believe what just happened with Hillary.
Again and again at debates, he looked eager to greet her or be friendly during the evening and she iced him. She might have frozen him out once more Monday night had he actually tried to reach out.
But now Obama is like that cat Mark Twain wrote about who wouldn't jump on the stove again for fear of being burned.
It was only after the distortions of the Clintons in South Carolina that he changed his tone and took on Hillary in a tough way in the debate there. Afterward, one of his advisers said that it was as though a dam had broken and Obama finally began using all the sharp lines against Hillary that strategists had been suggesting for months.
Why had it taken so long for Obama to push back against Hillary? "He respected her as a senator," the adviser replied. "He even defended her privately when she cried, saying that no one knows how hard these campaigns are."
But Obama's outrage makes him seem a little jejune. He is surely the only person in the country who was surprised when the Clintons teamed up to dissemble and smear when confronted with an impediment to their ambitions.
Knowing that it helped her when Obama seemed to be surly with her during the New Hampshire debate, telling her without looking up from his notes that she was "likable enough" — another instance of Obama not being able to hide his bruised feelings — Hillary went on ABC News on Tuesday night to insinuate that he had been rude Monday.
"Well, I reached my hand out in friendship and unity and my hand is still reaching out," she said, lapsing back into the dissed-woman mode. "And I look forward to shaking his hand sometime soon."
Something's being stretched here, but it's not her hand. She wasn't reaching out to him at all.
The New York state chapter of NOW issued an absurd statement on Monday calling Teddy Kennedy's endorsement of Obama "the ultimate betrayal": "He's picked the new guy over us."
But Obama is the more emotionally delicate candidate, and the one who has the more feminine consensus management style, and the not-blinded-by-testosterone ability to object to a phony war.
As first lady, Alpha Hillary's abrasive and secretive management of health care doomed it. She voted to enable W. on Iraq so she could run as someone tough enough to command armies.
Given her brazen quote to ABC News, Obama is right to be scared of Hillary. He just needs to learn that Uncle Teddy can't fight all his fights, and that a little chivalry goes a long way.
c.2008 New York Times News Service