The Clintons of Chappaqua very rarely make an inconspicuous entrance to any social occasion. It’s a highly unusual circumstance when the former president and the former First Lady aren’t naturally, unavoidably, the center of attention—and an even more anomalous one when they are threatened with being on the sidelines and they fail to rectify the situation forthwith. By all rights, of course, the Democratic National Convention unfolding this week should have been such an event, a glitzy, brassy, exquisitely choreographed affair with a singular focus on Barack Obama. But though the presumptive nominee will stand alone in the center ring in Denver, there will be three spotlights shining brightly at this circus, the other two of them on the Clintons.
You can blame the media if you like, but there’s no denying that the couple exercised great guile and muscle to plant themselves so firmly in the picture. From a position of weakness, they managed to extract from the Obamans every convention goodie they desired: Tuesday night for her, Wednesday night for him, a roll-call vote reminding everyone how close she came to defeating Obama, and ever so much more. Even some of their staunch allies are astounded by the extent of the coup. “They really pushed the envelope without all that much leverage,” says a longtime adjutant to both him and her. “I mean, she lost, remember?”
This is part one of the conventional thinking about the convention and the Clintons: Boy, they pulled a fast one! Part two is the converse: Man, Obama got played! The Clintons will overshadow him. They will undermine him. By caving to their demands, he came across as weak. “If Hillary Clinton can ride roughshod over this guy, what do you think bin Laden is gonna do?” was how the Clintons’ former Svengali Dick Morris put it on Fox.
Morris is a lunatic, no doubt, but plenty of sane Democrats share more-temperate versions of these views. To which I say, with due respect, what a pile of steaming horseshit. Obama’s so-called capitulation to the Clintons is rooted not in lily-liveredness but in cold-eyed calculation. And if his team orchestrates the convention with anything like the savvy, care, and ruthlessness with which it ran his bid for the nomination, the Clinton double act, deliciously distracting though it will be, will also be quickly forgotten—in no small part because of the pitch-perfect, good-soldierly performances that both are likely to turn in. They will do so not because they wish to see Obama win. They will do so because they understand that to have any hope of profiting later from his downfall they must leave no fingerprints.
At the game of concealment and suppression of true feelings, Hillary has, per usual, been more rigorous and disciplined than her husband. Though friends report she still seethes in private at the way she believes she and Bill were treated by the Obama camp—“She thinks they got away with murder for a lot of things they did and said,” one friend says—the face she has presented to the public has been nothing but smilingly pro-Obama. Her spouse has been another story, voicing his sense of grievance at being cast as a race-baiter, refusing to defend Obama’s qualifications for the presidency, warmly touting John McCain’s record just the other day on “the energy issue and on climate change.”
Clintonworld, too, is still simmering with resentments. Over the paucity of funds raised by Obama’s buckrakers to help retire her debt. (One big Obama bundler in the city says with a laugh, “I call people and ask them to write a check and they say, ‘You want me to pay Mark Penn’s fees when he tried to destroy Barack? Are you out of your fucking mind?”) Over the fact that Obama has hired too few of Clinton’s advisers. Over the hopemonger’s halfhearted outreach to the Man from Hope.
But even the most aggrieved Clintonistas would find it impossible to deny that Obama did right by their gal and guy when it came to the convention. To understand his generosity requires only a gander at last week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, which found that just 52 percent of Clinton’s supporters are now behind Obama, with 21 percent backing McCain and the rest either undecided or preferring someone else. To win, Obama needs to reel in a chunk of those voters. And whether or not the Clintons can deliver them, it made no sense to risk alienating these folks further by snubbing their hero and heroine.
Especially when the price being paid by Obama is actually less onerous than it might at first appear. The most egregious of the fripperies he granted her—the Harry Thomason–produced hagiografilm, the platform language decrying media misogyny—cost him zero politically. The high-profile podium turns for the Clintons were always a given. “She won 18 million votes, and he’s one of the greatest orators in the party,” her campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, tells me. “There was just no question they were going to get major speaking roles.” As for the roll-call vote, McAuliffe contends there is “no chance” it will backfire on Obama. “It’s not going to be a full roll call,” McAuliffe adds. “They’re not going to go through every state. Hillary doesn’t want them to.”