Heilemann: Barack and Bill Still Strangers, Despite Appearances

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"See you next year... maybe." Photo: Getty Images

So the first and last episode of the Barack and Bill Show took place last night in Kissimmee, Florida, with some 35,000 regular people in attendance, along with an all-star roster of journos (Jake Tapper! Margaret Carlson! Adam Nagourney — with his boss Bill Keller in tow!!!) shivering in the cold but pleased as hell to be there. We came to witness history, we came to witness magic, we came because we couldn't help ourselves. And if what unfolded wasn't quite as spine-tingling as we'd hoped, well, that was interesting in and of itself.

Clinton's thirteen-minute speech was energetic, emphatic, amped up to the point of being slightly hyperactive. He flapped his arms, clenched his fists, jabbed his finger in the air. "Folks, we can't fool with this," he said. "Our country is hanging in the balance. This man should be our president!" When Clinton finished, the two men clasped hands and embraced, then Obama sung a song to Clinton — praising his economic record, lauding him for having "reconfigure(d) the Democratic Party," calling him a "statesman," a "political genius," and a "beloved" figure "around the world." "In case all of you forgot, this is what it's like to have such a great president," Obama said.

Yet the very sloppy-wetness of the two-way tongue bath made the whole thing seem a little forced. Clinton, naturally, was laboring mightily to ensure that not a single word or gesture would get him dinged (as he has been repeatedly in the past few months, and with good reason) for being anything less than 100 percent behind Obama. But beyond the histrionics, the substance of his speech was formulaic, a gussied-up set of cookie-cutter talking points. The four reasons he cited for supporting Obama — his philosophy, his policies, his decision-making ability, and his capacity as a chief executive — could have been applied to any nominee of his party; there wasn't a single warm personal anecdote or characterological insight (both specialties of Clinton's when he's speaking about someone he actually, you know, likes). As Clinton orated, Obama looked on with an expression that conveyed no greater satisfaction, let alone thrill, than if he were being endorsed by the mayor of Orlando. He grinned occasionally, but the million-megawatt smile that he unleashes when he's truly psyched was nowhere to be seen.

Reading body language is, of course, more art than science — and you could argue that it's the purest bullshit. It's true that worst period of tension between the Clinton and Obama camps is over: The PUMA phenomenon is dead and buried, and the hopemonger, as Clinton pointed out last night, has reached out to WJC's former advisers; many of them, indeed, are neck deep in plotting Obama's putative transition, as my cover story in this week's magazine reported. The Clintons have done everything they've been asked to do in terms of campaigning this fall on Obama's behalf. They have been good soldiers, and the Obamans recognize that and respect them for it.

But the truth is that no real relationship exists between 42 and the would-be 44. A lunch in Harlem, sure. A few perfunctory phone calls, yeah. But that's about the extent of it. People close to Clinton say that this baffles him, and pains him even more. And it's not hard to understand why. In Obama, he sees someone creating a new incarnation of the Democratic Party, one that has precious little to do with the version that Clinton fashioned. (Surveying the crowd last night, Clinton offered, "You've even got a few gray-headed white guys like me — you haven't shut out my demographic yet.") He sees himself being eclipsed. If Obama demonstrated that he needs Clinton's counsel, everything between them would be different. But Obama manifestly doesn't believe he does, and he refuses to pretend otherwise. One late-night campaign appearance, however professionally executed, doesn't change that. Maybe occupying the Oval Office will.