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.”
The reason Clinton doesn’t want that is simple: A full roll-call vote would be widely, and correctly, interpreted as serving no other purpose than to embarrass Obama. And that, in turn, would be used by her critics to blame her if Obama loses in November. For WJC, the rage he feels over the tarnishing of his legacy on matters racial has at times overridden the partisan imperative to play nice with Obama, so the question of how stirringly eloquent he will be in Denver on the nominee’s behalf is tantalizingly open. (“He certainly has the capacity, and hopefully he will,” says the old Clinton hand. “There’s nothing in the past nine or ten months that would give you a lot of confidence, but I think he will; there’s a lot at stake here.”) For HRC, however, who plainly intends to run again in 2012 should Obama fall, reducing the extent to which she’s held culpable is a paramount priority. Thus will her speech on Tuesday night be every bit as steadfastly supportive as her endorsement speech was in June. And thus will she stump for him this fall tirelessly, flawlessly, uncomplainingly—albeit insincerely.
By insincerely, I don’t precisely mean that Clinton is rooting for Obama to lose. The truth, say those who know her best, is that she is profoundly ambivalent about her erstwhile rival. “I’m sure there are days when she wakes up and says, We’ve got to have a Democratic president,” reports one friend. “But there are times when she wants nothing more than to be proven right.” Proven right, that is, that Obama is a fatally flawed candidate, doomed to be defeated by McCain. In recent weeks, the same friend says, as McCain has gone negative on Obama to considerable effect, and Democrats have begun to wring their hands over their nominee’s prospects, Clinton’s sotto voce mantra has been, “Well, we knew that this would happen.”
The rejoinder from Obama’s fans will be: Sure you knew—because your campaign came up with the very arguments that McCain is now using to undermine Obama. The claim that he is too inexperienced to lead. The insinuation that Penn infamously advocated (but that Hillary did not employ) that Obama is insufficiently “American” to occupy the White House. Yet any Democrat who believes that McCain and his crew wouldn’t have found their way to this strategy on their own is either high or dreaming, for Obama’s political vulnerabilities are as glaring as his strengths. “There are two fundamental issues he faces: black and green,” says a veteran Democratic operative. “Is he too black? And is he too green?”
As Obama learns more each passing day, these will not be easy questions to answer. His first step in doing so, strange as it sounds, is to introduce himself to the country. Despite the wall-to-wall coverage of the Democratic race this past winter and spring, the truth, according to people familiar with Obama’s internal polling, is that most voters have precious little idea who he is. In this, ironically, his situation is similar to Bill Clinton’s at this stage in 1992. When Clinton arrived in New York that summer for the Democratic convention, much of the electorate believed that he had grown up a rich kid, privileged and pampered, that he was an elitist with fancy degrees from hoity-toity institutions that had been handed to him. The goal of that conclave was to acquaint the nation with the facts: that Clinton had come from a broken home, was raised on the wrong side of the tracks, had worked his way through college and law school, etc. He walked into Madison Square Garden in third place. He walked out in first and never looked back.
Obama and his people will be aiming for something similar this week. If they succeed, his convention will be remembered for that achievement, and for the stem-winder he uncorks on Thursday night that will be so pivotal to it. The performances of the Clintons, by contrast, will be recalled only if Obama loses (and even then, I have my doubts). And herein lies a lesson that applies more broadly, beyond the confines of the convention. To transform the Clintons from scene-stealers to bit players—and, even sweeter, to force them to admit that they were wrong about him—Obama only has to do one thing. All he has to do is win.