This article appeared in the Sunday Herald, on July 1, 2008.
After a week of getting used to her new role as a champion of Barack Obama’s presidential aspirations, Hillary Clinton formally endorsed her rival yesterday in Washington. On a sticky, oppressively hot June morning, thousands of her most loyal followers filed into the National Building Museum to hear her honour her promise to work selflessly for the good of the Democratic party and to bathe in the regrets of a campaign that might have been.
As always, the soundtrack told a story. Clinton’s campaign had chosen We Are Family by Sister Sledge to start the party. “I’ve got all my sisters with me,” they sang. “Everyone can see we’re together”.
Hearing Clinton praise Obama’s dedication to “ensure the dream is realised” was both refreshing and unsettling. She didn’t quite call him a great man or a visionary leader, but suddenly, he was no longer too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief either, no longer elitist or out of touch.
Over and over again, she pledged to campaign on his behalf. “I will work my heart out to make sure Senator Obama is our next President and I hope that all of you will join me,” she said. The applause was jittery and unconvincing. Enough people booed to make themselves heard.
The process of adjustment was a painful one. Monday’s flat-out refusal to admit weakness became Tuesday’s defiance, Wednesday’s reluctance and Thursday’s realisation that the gruelling six month slog from Iowa to Montana had ended in defeat. By Saturday, she was ready to give a concession speech worthy of the historic campaign that has inspired more Democrats to vote than ever before.
Clinton is not a natural public speaker. Her cadence is stilted, her mannerisms awkward. It is no stretch to say that Obama won the nomination at the podium, thanks to the preacher’s ease she dismissed as so much empty rhetoric. Yesterday she found a grace and good humour that has too often been lacking. “This isn’t exactly the party I’d planned,” she began, “but I sure like the company.”
She appealed for unity and told supporters not to dwell on their loss. “It’s time to restore the ties that bind us together,” she said. “I am standing with Senator Obama to say ‘yes we can’ and that together we will work… to achieve universal healthcare… that is why we must help elect Barack Obama our President.”
The generosity of her speech belied the desperate struggle that preceded it. On Wednesday, Clinton asked her backers for more time, even though Obama had already declared victory. In their public comments and private counsel, they declined her request. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell told CNN “I am the last of the Mohicans, but it is over.” Congressman Charles Rangel, from New York, said “We pledged to support her to the end. Our problem is not being able to determine when the hell the end is.”
Watching Clinton’s penultimate speech as a presidential candidate on Tuesday night was a surreal experience. Hundreds of journalists from around the world had come to Baruch College in New York to hear her concede, despite indications that she was not ready to do so.
Any doubts on that score were erased by the first song on the warm-up tape. I Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty was interrupted by a public service announcement, so they played it twice, to make sure we got the message.
The mood was giddy and thick with denial. Beer, wine and cocktails were on sale at the bar, unusually for a campaign event. I was reminded of the climactic scene of Carry On Up The Khyber, in which Sid James, Joan Sims and Roy Castle eat dinner while the palace is blown up around them. The band plays on, even as the roof falls in.
In the corridor, I walked past a young Clinton supporter with four Hillary For President badges pinned to his chest, earnestly telling a student journalist “it’s true he has more delegates than we do, but we are winning the key swing states.” There were women handing out “Count Michigan and Florida” stickers. When Clinton’s campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe yelled “are you ready for the next President of the United States?” it was tempting to shout back “why, is he here?”
The speech that followed defied belief, as well as the people who “said this race was over five months ago in Iowa”. Pressure for Clinton to bow out has certainly been ugly at times but refusing to admit that Obama had won crossed the line separating determination and delusion.
After paying lip service to her “friend” without acknowledging his victory, Clinton ran through some familiar themes: the swing state argument, her claim to have won the popular vote, her readiness to lead and the people who “reached out to help me, to grab my hand or grip my arm, to look into my eyes and tell me, don’t quit, keep fighting, stay in this race for us.”
At one point, she alluded to suggestions that she should be on the ticket, fed to reporters by her surrogates all evening. “You know, I understand that a lot of people are asking, what does Hillary want?” she said. “I want the nearly eighteen million Americans who voted for me to be respected, to be heard and no longer to be invisible.” The implication that she had been hard done by was inescapable. After she signed off with “God bless America” someone played I Won’t Back Down for a third time.
Obama’s speech the same night recognised that it is essential for him to win over Clinton’s base. He delivered a lengthy tribute to “her barrier-breaking campaign for the presidency,” adding that when universal health care is achieved “she will be central to that victory.”
Such public pronouncements of unity mask a bitter schism within the party that will not heal easily, partly because Obama’s followers have been notably less gracious than their leader. Scratch the surface of any politics website that invites comments and the mutual dislike between Obama and Clinton diehards is plain, expressed in terms that offer little hope of reconciliation.
In the last two primaries, a third of Clinton’s voters in Montana and South Dakota told exit polls they will not vote for Obama in November, indeed may even vote for McCain. Leading fundraiser and close friend Susie Tompkins Buell said “I cannot say that I would do that. I do know a lot of other women will.” A Republican party spokesman claimed central office has received numerous phone calls from Clinton supporters offering to help out.
From this perspective, the unity ticket is a tempting prospect. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz proposed sending the Democratic National Committee a letter signed by senior Clinton supporters to press her case. Clinton surrogate Lanny Davis launched a petition to have her nominated. An independent lobbying group called VoteBoth claims Clinton campaign director Maggie Williams has “blessed” its efforts.
The backlash to this pressure was immediate. A Wall Street Journal editorial decried Clinton’s attempts to “bully” Obama into offering her the number two slot. Columnist George Will argued that “if he chooses her, it will be an act of self-diminishment.” Jimmy Carter, displaying an uncommon lack of delicacy, told the Guardian that “it would be the worst mistake that could be made. That would just accumulate the negative aspects of both candidates.”
Naturally, Obama’s campaign was more tactful. Strategist David Axelrod said “we are not in the vice presidential phase here.” He promised a decision by the end of July and refused to rule anyone out. On Thursday, Clinton’s team responded in kind. Communications director Howard Wolfson said “she is not seeking the vice presidency, and no one speaks for her but her. The choice here is Senator Obama’s and his alone.”
Obama must know whether or not Clinton really wants it by now, having met her privately on Thursday night at Senator Dianne Feinstein’s house in Washington. A joint statement would only confirm that they had “a productive discussion about the important work that needs to be done to succeed in November.”
The first step is to admit that she lost fair and square, to placate hardcore supporters who believe that she was denied by institutional gender bias. Saturday’s address did not do this. For once, Clinton didn’t feel the need to list the states she captured or inflate her popular vote total, but she didn’t stress the legitimacy of Obama’s win either. “I congratulate him on the victory he has won” was as close as it got.
She was at her best when she linked the civil rights and women’s rights movements, pointing out that they share the same essential goal of equality before asking a pair of rhetorical questions: “Could a woman really serve as commander-in-chief? Well, I think we answered that one. Can an African-American really be President? Well, I think Senator Obama has answered that one… Together, Senator Obama and I have achieved milestones essential to the progress of our nation.”
In some respects, it was the speech on gender that her feminist supporters had been willing her to make ever since Obama’s candid remarks about race in March. “I am a woman and like millions of women I know that there are biases and prejudice out there,” she said. “We must make sure that women and men alike understand the struggles of their mothers and grandmothers.”
Because of her campaign, she claimed “there are about eighteen million cracks” in the “highest and hardest glass ceiling in the land… From now on, it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories.”
This served as a corrective to commentators like Marie Cocco, of the Washington Post, who believe that “no woman will seriously contend for the White House for another generation.” Clinton has proved that despite the double-standard which demands toughness and glamour at the same time, despite the sexism routinely expressed on television news, a woman can win.
When she finally embraced her gender and ran an explicitly feminist campaign, she discovered it was a much more powerful message than the robotic hyper-competence she started out with. The next credible female candidate will be stronger as a result.
In the week that a black man finally earned the chance to run for president, the white woman that he defeated still attracted more attention. Forty-five years to the day after Martin Luther King declared “I have a dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Obama will formally accept the Democratic party’s nomination at the convention in Denver. He now has to decide whether Clinton will be standing beside him.