Two of the most famous people in the world are running for president of the United States from different directions. Like Mohammed Ali at the height of his fame, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could knock on any door almost anywhere in the world and be recognized. They 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 at a time when there are no differences of manners and decorum between men and women. He hits Clinton with his verbal jabs as hard as Ali hit George Foreman and 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 old-order restraint.
She's "crooked Hillary"; he's "dangerously incoherent" and "temperamentally unfit."
In a media culture that inflates political candidates like balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, they deserve each other. 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?
Clinton's personality is pinched and guarded, a humorless expression of an embittered schoolmarm. Trump is about shooting from the lip; he's a take-no-prisoners guy with a perverse wit. Clinton's 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 his ability to create a press conference every time he stops in a different town. He doesn't always serve himself well.
The two presumptive nominees come from very different training camps. Clinton made her chops as a feminist, a governor's wife in conservative Arkansas, 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 her husband's cheatin', 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 conspiracy." She has demonstrated an ability to turn personal humiliation and affront to her advantage. Trump is not hurling insults at a palooka.
Though Clinton has often said she wouldn't stoop to the Trump style and tone, she threw punches like a street fighter in a recent speech that she promised would be about foreign policy, but was mainly an attack on Trump's character and tactics. She took a tip from Ali's warmup before his Rumble in the Jungle match against Foreman, belittling her opponent, building on what others saw as unlikable and throwing out one mean accusation after another.
Trump faltered briefly. Instead of exploiting the May Department of Labor job report, the weakest monthly job report in six years of Democratic leadership, he began swinging wildly with punch-drunk obtuseness. He changed the subject to the lawsuit against Trump University — which nobody was paying much attention to — and accused Federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is overseeing the lawsuit, of a conflict of interest because of his Mexican heritage.
Hyphenated Americans, which we once thought were mercifully discarded, have lately become all the rage. Trump stupidly landed a blow below the belt. Curiel was born in Indiana, deep in the heartland. There were legitimate questions of judicial bias, but Trump did not raise them. He instead exposed the outsider's lack of necessary inside experience, making the mistake of failing to separate his personal business from the political process.
Clinton and Trump are now headed toward a championship bout worthy of The Rumble in the Jungle. Either may be tempted to use Ali's rope-a-dope strategy: absorbing the best punches the other can throw, waiting for the opportune moment and then landing the knockout.
When the conventions are over and the actual campaign begins, the campaign is likely to resemble the Thrilla in Manila, Ali's third and final match against Frazier. Ali later said it was the closest to death he had ever been. Both fighters were exhausted after 14 rounds. The fight ended 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.