Four Days in Denver

Illustrations by Dan Goldman

The Democratic Party is closer than it’s ever been to a political nightmare—a deadlocked convention. Though the odds of its actually happening are still remote, the idea is so rich with dramatic possibility that we asked Lawrence O’Donnell Jr., former West Wing writer-producer, to play out a scenario in movie-treatment form. The premise is that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton arrive in Denver, neither having sufficient delegates to gain the nomination nor a decisive majority in the popular vote. And so it’s on…

FROM THE BLACK, we hear noises, confusing sounds. Grunting? Groaning? Sex? A massage? A workout? Weight lifting? fade in on: Skin. Sweaty skin.

A buttock? Male, female? Muscular. Hair. More hair. Definitely male. REVEAL hard-core gay sex scene between a flawless blond bodybuilder-hooker and a bald, middle-aged 300-pound man. A cell phone rings. The fat man reaches for it, hits a button to stop the ringing. Back to sex. A hotel phone starts ringing. And ringing. And ringing. The fat man picks it up and hangs up to stop the ringing. It rings again immediately. The fat man tries the same trick. And it rings again immediately. Finally, the phone wins. As the fat man talks on the phone, the hooker continues to do his job.

Fat man: Yeah … Harold, can I call you ba— … Uh-huh … I still haven’t deci— … This really isn’t a good time for— … Please. I have to— … I just— … I need— … (Desperate to get back to sex, gives up.) Okay … Yes, I’m saying yes … No, you can’t announce it yet … I’m giving you my word … I’ve got to hang up now … Okay. (Hangs up.)
Hooker (looking up from his work): Are you a superdelegate?

Harold Ickes hanging up the phone in his hotel suite, the Clinton delegate-counting center.

Ickes: Hey, I just got the lieutenant governor of—
Howard Wolfson: Have you seen Gore? (Grabs a remote, flips on CNN’s live coverage of Al Gore arriving at Denver airport.)
Ickes (shocked): Holy shit!
Wolfson: He’s lost, what, 30 pounds?
Ickes (still can’t believe his eyes): He looks like …
Wolfson: A fucking candidate!

Al Gore passes through a hotel lobby and is swarmed by fans and delegates. The fat man from the sex scene fights his way close to Gore. A Gore aide whispers the fat man’s name to Gore.

Fat man: Hey, Al, remember me? I’m the lieutenant govern—
Gore: Hey, Pete, great to see you. Are you committed?
Fat man: Well, actually, I just said yes to Hillary, but if you throw your hat in the—
Gore: Hey, I’m just here to help any way I can.
Fat man: You look just unbelievable.

Brian Williams sets the table with his solemn intro to NBC’s coverage: The pledged delegate score is Obama 1,688, Clinton 1,539; Obama holds a slim popular-vote lead of 1.5 percent with 30 million votes cast; 263 superdelegates remain uncommitted. Anything can happen.

Howard Dean opens the convention and gets booed off the stage. The delegates hold him responsible for the mess they’re in. Dean grabs Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi as he rushes out of the convention hall. Dean tells them they’ve gotta figure out a way to stop the bleeding tonight. Dean, Reid, and Pelosi get heckled by passing delegates as Obama Girl happily signs autographs in the background.

Midnight. Dean’s suite. Party leadership meets. Where’s Gore? He said he’d be here. Someone points to a TV.

Gore (on CNN): No, Anderson, I’m not here as a candidate. I’m just trying to be helpful in any way I can.

The leadership considers going to Hillary and telling her it’s time to drop out. They all know there will be blood if they do that. Someone suggests trying to get Barack to drop out.

Reid: Barack sure is a lot easier to talk to.
Pelosi: Are we really gonna ask him to drop out just because he’s easier to talk to?

They screw up the courage to go to Hillary. They all agree they have to have Gore onboard and they have to enlist at least one of Hillary’s most committed superdelegates to join them.

Reid tries to get Chuck Schumer to join the talk-to-Hillary delegation. Impossible. She would see it as betrayal, pure and simple, and then Schumer couldn’t possibly live with her in the Senate for the rest of their careers.

High noon. A series of black sedans pull up to the loading dock of a hotel. Dean gets out of one and enters the building, then Reid gets out of another, then Joe Biden, then Robert Byrd, Max Baucus, Steny Hoyer, Ed Markey, Henry Waxman—all high-profile undecided superdelegates.

Clinton suite. The party heavyweights are gathered. Bill Clinton, in golf clothes, kills time with them—joshing, getting them coffee—while they wait for Hillary. Bill notices Pelosi isn’t there and is assured she’s on the way. Pelosi enters, with Charlie Rangel trailing. Bill acts unsurprised.

Bill: Hey, Charlie, how ya doin’? I was wondering who they were gonna pick off from our team.
Rangel: Mr. President, this is very difficult for me. You know I—
Bill (dismissive): Sure, Charlie. (to group) Everyone here?
Dean: I think we’re waiting for one more.
Bill: Hope you don’t mean Gore?
Dean: Yeah.
Bill: Forget it. (beat) Don’t get me wrong, I’m not hiding him somewhere, I just know Al a bit better than you do. I bet he’s on TV right now. (Grabs the remote and starts flipping channels—CNN, no. Fox, no. MSNBC, no. CNBC, no. ABC, bingo. There’s Gore yukking it up with Barbara and Whoopi on The View, broadcasting live from Denver.) Look at him, working Hillary’s demo. You actually think Al would help y’all try to get the nomination for someone else? You have any idea how hard it is to lose that kinda weight? He didn’t do that just to go on The View.
Dean & Co. share a worried look.
Bill: Al’s hoping this thing goes two or three ballots, then you guys call him in from the bull pen. (beat, icily.) And, ’course, Al ain’t got it in him to walk through that door and try to tell me what to do about anything.

Dean asks if Hillary is on her way. Bill says no, change of schedule, she’s out working superdelegates, she asked him to handle this one. Dean nods to mild-mannered Reid, who starts in with the “for the good of the party” pitch. Bill cuts him off.

Bill: Spare me the speeches. I guess you’re here because you already asked Barack to drop out and he turned you down? (Awkward silence.) Okay, go ask Barack.
Rangel: Look, Bill—
Bill: Fuck you, Charlie. You think you can put a knife in my wife’s back and come in here and talk to me nicely?

Rangel’s 78-year-old Harlem street instincts have him moving toward Bill with a clenched fist. Biden jumps in to keep them apart.

Rangel: If your wife is elected president, I’m still gonna be chairman of Ways and Means and she’s gonna need me every fucking day. So how do you wanna leave it: Fuck you, Charlie, or I’m sorry, Mr. Chairman?
Bill quickly apologizes, then turns to the group.
Bill: Hard being a superdelegate, huh? You can’t come right out and announce you’re for Barack because you’re afraid the rest of the undecideds won’t follow your lead. Then where are you? No sense staying neutral this long if you don’t end up picking the winner, right?

Obama suite. Dean and the leadership are meeting with Barack and Michelle Obama.

Barack: But I have the lead in delegates, the lead in—
Reid: We know. We just think a unity ticket is the only way we can—
Michelle: Why should the guy in the lead take the VP slot?
Reid: We—
Barack: Because you already asked Hillary to take VP and she said no?

Dean: We haven’t exactly asked her that yet, but if we could tell her you’re ready to accept the vice-presidential nomination …
Barack: No.
Reid: Barack, if this goes to a second ballot, all hell could break loose.
Barack: No.
Dean (pointing to Gore on Larry King): You know Gore’s gonna make a move if we get to a second ballot. You really think you can hang on to all your delegates then?
Barack shoots a worried look at Gore on TV.
Joe Biden: You ran a strong campaign, amazing campaign, but it wasn’t strong enough to win you the nomination. I’m sure most of your delegates love you, but conventions are about picking winners. And if we get to a second ballot and all the delegates are free to vote for whoever is looking like a winner (points to Gore), that guy’s gonna pick off delegates from both sides and you and Hillary might end up fighting for the VP slot on a Gore ticket.

Now Michelle looks worried. Barack and Michelle have already talked about this. They thought they had made a decision, but this is the real decision point, and Michelle’s supportive nod to Barack says that it’s all up to him.

Barack: Michelle and I need the room for a minute.

Everyone scurries out of the room. The entire leadership of the Democratic Party waits in the hotel hallway as the Obamas discuss the choice: Go for broke or settle for VP. Settle? What first-term senator has ever had the choice of settling for VP? What black American has ever had the choice of settling for VP?

Michelle: I don’t have to be First Lady.
Barack: Tell me something I don’t know.
Michelle: Second Lady could be fun.
Barack (smiles): We get a big house, a big plane, plenty of time to help the kids with their homework.
Michelle (seriously): And another chance to run for president. (beat) Your call.
Barack: Flip a coin?

Hotel hallway. Barack opens the door to the suite, looks at Dean and the rest of the leadership anxiously waiting in the hallway.

Barack: Gore comes after my delegates, (beat) he’s gonna have to fight me for them.

Hillary’s car is pulling away from the hotel. She spots Oregon senator Ron Wyden getting into his car. She has her car chase Wyden’s car. At a traffic light, she jumps out with a gang of Secret Service agents and they surround Wyden’s car. She climbs into Wyden’s car and rides with him, working on him to vote for her. When Wyden finally says he thinks only Obama can beat McCain, Hillary is ready for that. She tells Wyden that McCain’s winning the White House is the best thing that can happen for Wyden’s reelection in 2010, because the president’s party always loses seats in midterm elections. A Democratic president is going to make Wyden’s reelection that much tougher.

Ron Wyden press conference. Wyden announces his support for Hillary, citing all the usual reasons—health care, experience, ready on day one …

Convention floor. The roll-call vote of the states is under way. Most of the undecided superdelegates decide not to decide until they can see which way the wind’s blowing. A handful of pledged delegates switch sides at the last minute, and each one immediately gets his fifteen minutes on every network. With about 250 superdelegates staying on the sidelines, the first ballot ends with no nominee and Barack ahead of Hillary by 137 delegates.

Gore tells Dean he wants to address the convention.

Dean: Sure, Al. No problem. Right after you tell Hillary and Barack what a great job VP is and persuade one of them to take it.

Barack goes to the men’s room and finds an undecided superdelegate, Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, at the urinal beside him. Barack knows he doesn’t have much time to take advantage of this situation, so he gets right to the point and offers Brown his seat on the Foreign Relations Committee when he becomes president. Brown says he doesn’t want Foreign Relations, he wants to go where the money is: Finance or Appropriations. They both know even the president can’t help you get on those committees. Brown zips up and leaves Barack with his dick in his hand.

Michelle runs into General Wesley Clark, who’s having trouble getting into the convention hall because he forgot his credentials. She has her Secret Service detail intervene to get him in. Clearly dazzled by Michelle, Clark thanks her profusely, tells her he’s a big fan. Michelle jokes that she didn’t think she had a lot of fans on the Clinton campaign.

Clark (almost apologetically): I’m from Arkansas, I owe Bill Clinton a lot. Hillary asked for my advice on military issues, so I …
Michelle spots an uncommitted superdelegate, Rhode Island senator Jack Reed, and drops Clark to chase Reed.

On the second ballot, there is surprisingly little delegate movement and no winner. But Al Gore gets six votes, including one from the fat man, who goes with his heart this time.

With Dean still denying him the microphone, Gore does a march across the convention floor that gets him mobbed by worshipful delegates shaking his hand and getting their pictures taken with him.

Dean rushes the convention to a third ballot before Gore can build up momentum. Hillary and Barack go to the floor and desperately work the delegates during the roll call of the states. As they beg for votes, network camera crews are pushing through the crowds to get live close-ups of Hillary and her surrogates (Bill, Clark, Dianne Feinstein) and Barack and his surrogates (Michelle, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd) in full suck-up mode with every delegate they talk to. No presidential candidates have ever looked so desperate.

CLOSE ON Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus sitting quietly with the Montana delegation, watching Hillary and Barack working the floor. Baucus is disgusted by the circus the convention has become.

The third ballot is a big setback for Gore, who loses half his voters and ends up with three. The Gore surge is over. Delegates get friskier this time. There are two votes for Eliot Spitzer, one for Jimmy Carter (Carter actually has to swear to Bill O’Reilly that he did not vote for himself), eleven for Barney Frank, and one for Keith Olbermann. The Frank voters happily do network interviews explaining what a joy it is to actually cast convention votes to nominate a gay man on the same night that they already cast votes to nominate a woman and a black man.

Dean finds Barack and tells him Hillary wants to meet with him one-on-one. Barack’s campaign guru David Axelrod says no way, she wants to offer you VP. Michelle agrees: Don’t do it. Barack turns down the meeting, then tells Dean he wants a meeting with Hillary. Dean’s confused: So what is it? You want the meeting or you don’t want the meeting?

Barack: I just turned down Hillary’s meeting. And now I’m inviting Hillary to my meeting.

Dean tries to pretend that what he just heard isn’t crazy. He turns to leave. Barack tells him to be sure to tell Hillary that he turned down her meeting before inviting her to his meeting. Dean exits.

Axelrod: So you offer her the VP, then—
Michelle: She won’t take it.
Axelrod: I know. Then we leak that she turned it down and—
Michelle: I got a better idea.

Dean tells Hillary that Barack wants the meeting (without mentioning that Barack turned down her meeting and that this will be his meeting). Bill is shocked that Axelrod is letting Barack do the meeting.

Dean: Believe me, it wasn’t easy to persuade him to do it.
Bill: Something’s wrong with this picture.
Dean: I had to twist his arm. I—
Bill: You? Twist arms? Bullshit. (to Hillary) Barack wants to offer you VP. Dueling press conferences afterward—who offered who the VP slot. Forget it. It’d be a fiasco. The meeting’s off.
Dean: The meeting was your idea!
Hillary: Good-bye, Howard.
Dean exits.

Baucus finds Dean huddling with the convention’s parliamentarian about when to start the fourth ballot. Baucus tells Dean both candidates have to get in a room alone and work this out. Dean explains what he’s just gone through, says it’s hopeless. Baucus has a plan: Tell Hillary I want to meet with her alone in this room in ten minutes to discuss endorsing her before the next ballot. Tell Barack the same thing. Dean says they’ll walk out as soon as they see each other. Baucus says: And leave an undecided superdelegate undecided? I don’t think so.

Hillary’s Secret Service bubble moves through the hallways of the convention hall, with her inside it. Barack’s flying wedge of Secret Service agents moves him off the convention floor toward the Baucus meeting. The Sharks and the Jets arrive at the holding room at the same time. Holy shit! Hillary and Barack both turn to leave, then Hillary turns back, thinking she can now go in there alone and get the Baucus endorsement. Then Barack turns back. They both turn away again and both turn back again. There’s an uncommitted superdelegate on the other side of that door. Neither candidate can let the other go in that room alone. They both enter, Barack holding the door for Hillary.

Barack (deferentially): Mr. Chairman.
Baucus: Thanks for coming.
Hillary: Max, I thought—
Baucus: It’s time for you two to work this out.
Baucus starts to leave. Hillary follows Baucus toward the door, then Barack follows Hillary. Baucus herds them back into the room.
Baucus: Listen up. Your health-care bill (shifts glance from one to the other) has to come through my committee. So does your tax bill, the changes you wanna make to NAFTA—I could go on and on. You walk out of here now, and one of you somehow makes it to the White House, I guarantee you you’re gonna have the worst first year ever. (Exits.)

Barack: Well, here we are … Hillary, I—
Hillary: You’re a better speaker than I am.
Barack (confused): Uh …
Hillary: Way better. Better than Bill. Best I’ve ever seen.
Barack: Uh, thank—

Hillary: When you go out there and accept the nomination, it’s gonna be the best speech of this convention, no question about it. (beat) Even if you’re accepting the nomination for vice-president. You’re gonna be the rock star on the ticket no matter what I do.
Barack: I don’t want to be VP.
Hillary: The way we’re going, you probably won’t have to be. McCain’s ahead of both of us in the polls now. If we lose, you’re the front-runner for the nomination to run against McCain four years from now, and you know that would be an impossible race to lose.
Barack: If we win—
Hillary: You’re the front-runner for the nomination eight years from now, when you’re what? Fifty-four? And you’ve got VP experience to run on.
Barack: Lotta good that did Al Gore.
Hillary: Look, if you run at the top of the ticket and lose to McCain, that’s it. End of story. You will never have another chance. Ask John Kerry how easy it is to get the nomination again.
Barack: So, I’d be your VP and Bill would be what? Your executive vice-president?
Hillary: Don’t worry about Bill.
Barack: I’d worry about him a lot less if he was my VP’s husband.
Hillary: I don’t want to be VP.
Barack: Been there, done that?
Hillary: Kinda, yeah. And I learned a lot.
Barack smiles—here we go with the Hillary’s-experience bullshit.
Hillary: Talk to Al Gore about what he learned as VP.
Barack: I think he learned it’s a dead end.
Hillary: You don’t—
Barack: Hillary, I care about two things exactly as much as you do: the party and getting the nomination.
Hillary: You mean you don’t give a shit about the party and you’d kill to get the nomination?
Barack (smiles): You wearing a wire? (beat) You know, all that ugly ink you’ve been getting all summer about destroying the party, handing the election to McCain—there’s only one person who can make that go away. Me. That brilliant acceptance speech you’re expecting me to give can put you back where you belong—hero of the Democratic Party—can put your husband back where he belongs—respected statesman. Nothing else can.
Hillary: Winning can.
Barack: If you got the nomination, you’d lose to McCain and the Clintons become the official destroyers of the Democratic Party. End of story. Have fun in the Senate after that.
Hillary: C’mon, I can beat McCain. I can—
Barack: Hillary, your negative is at 49 percent. You have the highest negative of anyone who’s ever run. You cannot possibly win in November.

Hillary: The Republicans would drive up your negative if you got the nomination.
Barack: Sure they will. Five points? Push me up to 38 percent? What if they push your negative up two points? Fifty-one percent? It’s hopeless, Hillary.
Hillary: Well, let’s see what happens on the next ballot.
Hillary turns to leave.
Barack: I don’t care how many ballots you want to put us through. I don’t care if this convention takes two weeks. I came here to win, and that’s what I’m going to do. Nothing will make me back down. Nothing will make me take the number-two spot. Nothing. You’re up against someone who is prepared to do as much damage as you are. (beat) And the press is gonna blame you for all of it.

Hillary has never seen this kind of ruthlessness outside of her family. For the first time ever, the thought flashes through her mind that this guy could maybe turn out to be a good president, maybe he could stare down the Putins of the world.

Barack: When you walk out of here I’m going straight to a press conference and announce that when I get the nomination, my choice for VP will be Wesley Clark, and—
Hillary (laughs): Not gonna happen. Wes has been with my campaign from the start.
Barack (continuing): —and on the next ballot, the possible Obama-Clark ticket’s gonna get me the Arkansas delegation and another—what do you think—200 superdelegates at least?
Hillary: I’m not gonna let you have Wes for a phony unity ticket.
Barack: Too late. Michelle is meeting with him right now.
Barack’s iPhone buzzes. He checks it.
Hillary: He won’t accept anything without my—
Barack holds up the iPhone. close on text message: CLARK DEAL DONE. LUV U, M. Hillary looks pained—as much by the Clark deal as by the love in the Obama marriage. Barack gives her a moment to process the shock, then …
Barack (softly): I want you to come with me to the press conference.
Hillary: No way.
Barack: I need—
Hillary (bitterly): You don’t need me. You’ve got my biggest supporter as your VP. He’s got you covered now on foreign-policy credentials, military experience.
Barack: It’s not a unity ticket unless you say it’s a unity ticket. I want to tell the press that I asked you to be VP, you turned it down and suggested General Clark. I want to give you credit for saving the day, saving the party. I want you leaving Denver with your head held high.
Hillary: I, uh, I …

Barack: Wes has already agreed to that story.
CLOSE on Hillary, thinking about it …
Barack: I can win the nomination without you, but I can’t win the election without you. I need you, Hillary.

Press conference. CLOSE ON Hillary smiling from ear to ear, as camera motors whir, a thousand camera flashes pop. REVEAL she’s holding her arms straight up in a Rocky-style victory pose. WIDEN to reveal her left hand gripping Wes Clark’s hand, her right hand gripping Barack’s hand. MOVE IN for a two-shot of Barack and Hillary as we PRE-LAP the sound of the growing roar of 20,000 people.

Hillary (voice-over, shouting): I give you the next president of the United States, Barack Obama!

Barack stepping up to the podium, hugging Hillary, and waving to the adoring convention crowd. Hillary slips offstage, leaving Barack alone to soak up the standing ovation.

Hillary spots Bill in the crowd of superdelegates at the back of the podium. Bill is hugging Charlie Rangel and holding the hug long enough to make sure every news camera in the building gets the shot. Repair work on the Clintons’ relationship with black America starts now.

Hillary goes to Bill. They hug, smile, and join in the standing ovation as if happy days really are here again.

Bill (whispers): Don’t worry. McCain’ll kick his ass.

FADE TO BLACK, then roll credits over still shots of cheering, crying delegates, including the fat man, and the sound of an endless standing ovation.

Kurt Andersen on Falling Out of Love With Bill Clinton
Reaction to Mark Penn’s Resignation

Four Days in Denver