WASHINGTON -- Is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's inevitability less inevitable?
The growing consensus seems to be that the former first lady's ascendancy as first female president of the United States is less assured than previously thought, thanks in large part to the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.
This is polite talk from the emperor's court. The naked truth is, Senator Clinton has a bigger problem than Senator Obama. Anyone who has heard her speak knows what it is, so we may as well talk about it.
Every time Mrs. Clinton opens her mouth, Americans are reminded of two things: (1) She's not Bill, and (2) she's as tone-deaf in the presence of human beings as she was singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Iowa recently.
No one can help the voice they're born with - much. But people can learn to adjust the volume, and to take the temperature of a room before speaking. And especially, to avoid faking a local accent, pretending to be something they're not. Southern, for instance.
In Selma, Ala., last weekend at the "Bloody Sunday" commemoration, Mrs. Clinton auditioned for a dual role - not just a Southerner, but a Southern preacher in the style of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
It was clear that Mrs. Clinton was trying to imitate the oratorical style of her black predecessors to the pulpit - something no white person should ever attempt. But what she must have imagined sounded like passion was to mere mortals the screech of an angry woman.
Her audience, nevertheless, was polite and affirming (Southerners are like that), even as she turned on the worst fake accent since Kevin Costner played Robin Hood. Shouting the words from a gospel hymn, Mrs. Clinton was so off-key that anyone tuning in would have assumed it was a joke - a parody of a politician speaking in native tongues, Granny Clampett auditioning on American Idol.
"I don't feel no ways tired," she said with the robotic twang of a computer-generated Southerner. "I come too farrrr frum where I started frum. Nobody told me that the road would be easy."
In politics, we're not supposed to talk about style over substance, especially when it comes to women. But no male politician would get away with what Mrs. Clinton pulled in Selma. Moreover, speaking style is not irrelevant to leadership, as Americans have noted the past six years.
Tone. Voice. Cadence. These may seem superficial, less important than the substance of a candidate's message. But they suggest something innate about the person speaking - awareness (or the lack thereof) and the ability to merge with an audience, to persuade, calm, inspire and reassure. Or not.
When a person's style distracts from substance, we have a problem. When a person's voice makes listeners recoil and want to be somewhere else, that person is not going to be an effective communicator.
But what about substance? What was Mrs. Clinton thinking when she hijacked a gospel hymn and effectively mocked her audience? Her speech exposed not just an incompetent ear but also disrespect for the people gathered. Would she affect a Brooklyn accent with a Jewish audience remembering the Holocaust?
Mrs. Clinton, unlike her husband, simply lacks a feel for communication, no matter how many hugs she delivers. While Bill Clinton could become one with his audience, Hillary Clinton's voice sends mannequins into a fetal curl.
It may not be Mrs. Clinton's fault that her voice sounds like it was fashioned from metal, but it is her fault that she sounds like a car alarm when she's handed a microphone. It is her fault that she panders - badly - to her audiences.
Her performance last weekend in Selma revealed more than atonality.
Like a warped bell, Hillary Clinton rings untrue.
Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.