The tableau on Odell Clark Place in Harlem two Sunday afternoons ago looked like a scene lifted straight from a Spike Lee movie—assuming the movie was an updated, uptown hybrid of All the King’s Men and The Bonfire of the Vanities. On the south side of the street, in front of the fabled Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, in a dapper gray homburg and two-tone topcoat, posed before a swarm of cameramen and beside Hillary Clinton, whose presidential bid he was endeavoring to endorse. What made this an act of some difficulty was the lusty chanting of the sign-toting crowd that had gathered across the road, undeterred by the subfreezing temperature, to offer an endorsement of its own: “O-Bam-A! O-Bam-A! O-BAM-A!”
As Butts gamely struggled to make his finely honed phrases heard above the din, Clinton stood by, grinning from ear to ear. When he finished, she offered some words of her own and even (as is her wont these days) took a few questions from the press; the frigid air made them, for once, unaggrieved at the brevity of the “avail.” Through it all, the chanters kept on chanting, but Clinton was unfazed. In fact, she ambled across the street and delivered hot coffee to the protesters, rendering them, finally, mute.
A few minutes later, I met Clinton back inside the church. Although she’d arrived in New York from Las Vegas that morning at around 3 a.m., the senator was chipper—and no wonder. The day before, she had won the Nevada caucuses, giving her a second consecutive victory over Barack Obama in a state where a loss seemed imminent. But the Nevada campaign had been a surpassingly ugly affair, one that commenced with yet another Clinton backer, BET founder Robert Johnson, obliquely raising Obama’s teenage drug use, continued with a Spanish-language radio ad by a pro-Obama group asserting that Clinton “does not respect our people,” and ended with accusations from both sides of voter intimidation and vote suppression. Suddenly, the specter of a Democratic nominating contest riven by identity politics hung heavy in the air.
Clinton insisted that she did not want the campaign “to be about race or gender.” But in the next breath, she assailed her rival’s operation for indulging in scurrilous racial politics repeatedly—citing the memo it sent out last year that labeled her as “Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)”—and with impunity. When I asked Clinton if she was worried that the conduct of her own campaign might alienate black voters, she replied, “This is such a difficult election across the country, and I think we do have an obligation to try and stay above it, to try to contain the feelings. But it’s not inappropriate to say, ‘Look, there’s a lot at stake here.’ If you believe you would be the best president, that you would be the best candidate to win in November, you’re going to get out there and make your case, and you’re going to make it vigorously.”
Vigorous would be one adjective to describe the tenor of the back-and-forth between Clinton and Obama the following night at the Democratic debate in South Carolina. Another would be vicious. The debate made evident what anyone who has spent time in close quarters with these two cats already understood: They have come to regard each other bitterly, scornfully, as unfit to lead their party against the Republicans in the fall.
Maybe it was inevitable that the campaign—this historic rumble between the first credible female and African-American aspirants to the highest office in the land—would end up here, but until quite recently, it didn’t seem that way. For one full year, we were treated instead to a mutually self-serving (or self-defeating) narrative, dominated by prettied-up personas and tissue-thin false dichotomies: change versus experience, novelty versus familiarity, idealism versus pragmatism. Presidential campaigns are always highly scripted affairs, of course. But the endless wonder of them is that eventually, invariably, the story line goes careering off the rails, veering into more visceral and personal territory—in the process revealing much about the candidates, the country, and even ourselves.
What’s been revealed by the battles that have raged over this past month is that Clinton and Obama, for all their similarities in terms of policy, have distinctly different notions, both plausible, about politics and its possibilities; about partisanship and the chances and desirability of surmounting it; about how a president goes about achieving progress. That their personalities, temperaments, and leadership qualities could hardly be more divergent. That the Democratic Party still harbors powder-keg racial tensions just waiting to be detonated. And that America remains deeply ambivalent about the prospect of a Clinton restoration—although, in truth, this last was probably more of a reminder than a revelation.