Hillary and Obama: Can they stand each other?

As 2016 nears, the amazing story of how Clinton and Obama united -- and how her aides explained her '08 collapse

Published February 16, 2014 11:59AM (EST)

Hillary Clinton and President Obama          (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Hillary Clinton and President Obama (AP/Charles Dharapak)

Reprinted from "HRC"

On June 6, three days after the last presidential primary, Hillary invited about two hundred campaign aides, advisers, and friends to the family’s $4 million–plus redbrick home on Whitehaven Street for a backyard get-together. The event was a final expression of gratitude for the brainpower, tears, and sweat they had poured into her cause for more than a year.

On this day, the sweat kept coming. It was a sweltering Friday in the nation’s capital, with violent summer storms brewing in the suburbs, and Clinton’s air-conditioned house was off-limits to guests, except for one bathroom that was accessible from the outside. Some of her aides kicked off their shoes and dipped their feet in the pool for relief. Hillary ignored the heat and stifling humidity to work one last crowd, taking pictures with midlevel staffers in sweat-soaked shirts.

Like a weekend griller, Bill Clinton held court in his own backyard, complaining about "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert to just about anyone who would listen. Russert had called the time of death on Hillary’s campaign a month earlier on the night of the North Carolina and Indiana primaries. “Sometimes in campaigns the candidate is the last to recognize the best timing,” Russert had said. “It’s very much like being on life support. Once they start removing the systems, you really have no choice.”

Much as Bill blamed big-media types for jumping on the Obama bandwagon, Russert was just reporting a truth that was evident even to Hillary. The narrowness of Hillary’s victory in Indiana, where she had run the field operation for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, was just as telling as the pounding she took in North Carolina that night. The day after those primaries, on a conference call with the campaign’s top executives, she issued the edict to cease and desist on attacks that could hurt Obama in the general election. The final month of the campaign was a slow march to her inevitable fate.

At the end of that slog, the backyard party had the feel of a wake, a bittersweet goodbye. Though the Washington air was thick with speculation about whether Obama might pick Hillary to be his running mate, the two former rivals had met the night before at Senator Dianne Feinstein’s D.C. home and, unbeknownst to the partygoers at Hillary’s house, Obama made clear that he did not intend to ask her. For the most part, the extended Clinton family of friends and aides tried to keep the mood in the backyard upbeat. But surface conviviality couldn’t hide the fact that this journey was ending on the north lawn of the Whitehaven house rather than on the South Lawn of the White House.

While Hillary listened to battlefield stories, shared laughs, and posed for pictures, she gave no hint of the emotional and politically delicate task that lay ahead of her that night. As the last of the political operatives and press aides shuffled off the property, Hillary headed to her dining room to write the final draft of the highly anticipated concession speech that she would deliver the next morning to a nation of Democrats waiting to see whether she could endorse Obama with conviction. The dining room, separated from the foyer by sliding French doors, is the business center at the Clintons’ Washington home, a 5,500-square-foot Georgian temple to the 1950s that they bought in 2000 so Hillary would have a place to live while she served in the Senate.

By the time Hillary sat down late that afternoon with aides Doug Hattaway and Sarah Hurwitz, the latest draft of the speech reflected the scars of a staff still riven. Nearly all agreed that Hillary had to endorse Obama and acknowledge her own supporters, but they couldn’t come to terms on the best approach. For several days, her various communications advisers had been e-mailing drafts back and forth, fighting one another through edits to the text. The bigger camp, made up mostly of high-priced advisers like chief strategist Geoff Garin, demanded a full-throated endorsement of Obama that would convince his team, the Democratic Party, and the rest of the country that she was completely on board.

The smaller set, which included several of the women closest to Hillary, as well as Hattaway and Hurwitz, insisted that she couldn’t credibly make the case for Obama if she didn’t deliver a powerful acknowledgment of the historic nature of her own candidacy and particularly of the women who had supported it. At the heart of the matter was an existential question that had plagued the campaign from its earliest days: how should Hillary handle being the first viable female candidate for president?

For most of the campaign, she had sided with old-school professionals who believed she needed to project strength and thus keep the talk about being a woman to a minimum. She hadn’t given a speech that called attention to her gender the way Obama had made a race speech. But her campaign had been resurrected by vulnerability, in a moment of emotional exhaustion, when a tear rolled down her face at a stop in New Hampshire. Those who felt she performed better when she showed her underdog side believed the concession speech gave Hillary an opportunity to talk about the very aspect of her persona that she had held back for so long and that appealed to so many voters.

When Hillary sat down with Hurwitz and Hattaway, the draft they reviewed included both an endorsement of Obama and an oratorical run about her place in history. For months, she had resisted the close circle of advisers who had wanted her to frame her candidacy in terms of history, the way Obama had. Now the text in front of her did just that. Jim Kennedy, a longtime Clinton hand, had come up with the phrase that melded Hillary with her voters in the continuum of the women’s movement. Text-messaging his thoughts from his home in Venice Beach, California, earlier in the week, Kennedy said Hillary should speak of the “eighteen million cracks” that her campaign had put in the most fortified glass ceiling of them all.

Hillary had always favored making a robust endorsement, her aides said. But as she reviewed the latest draft at her dining room table, she still wasn’t sold on the riff about her place in history. She was more inclined to show first and foremost that she was a team player—an attribute she prized in herself and that was important to preserving her political future. She had to be brought around to putting so much emphasis on honoring her achievement as the woman who had come closest to winning a major party’s presidential nomination.

She scrawled a question mark in the margin beside the paragraphs about her.

“It wasn’t about being a woman,” Hillary said.

“Think about talking not about you as a woman but to the women who supported you,” Hattaway countered, framing his argument in terms that might appeal to the midwestern Methodist who reflexively worried about the potential unseemliness of calling attention to herself. “This is a big accomplishment for them.”

Hillary wasn’t convinced. “Her head wasn’t there,” said one source. Then Hurwitz, a Harvard-educated lawyer and speechwriter who had been taking notes quietly, leaned forward  and made the case. For one young woman with proximity to power, this was the moment to speak for the millions of women her own age, as well as for the mothers and grandmothers, who had stuck by Hillary. They burned  to see the first woman in the Oval Office, choosing that cause over another cherished hope for many of them—to elect the first black president. This, above all else, mattered. It wasn’t that Hurwitz was consumed with hatred for Obama. Within weeks, she would join his campaign, and she ended up landing a coveted job on the White House speechwriting team. But this moment mattered for so many women who had pinned their hopes on Hillary. In the end, Hurwitz’s passion, and her reason, won out.

Okay, Hillary said, it stays.

The denouement was pivotal, as much for what it said about the evolution of Hillary’s persona in the coming years as it did for the tenor of the speech she would give the next day. Hillary’s toughness and her femininity weren’t mutually exclusive; they were bound together. Voters, particularly women, identified with her precisely because she was a woman with an iron spine. Over that summer, from her dining room table in June to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August, she started to develop a new narrative in which she embraced being a trailblazing political force in her own right.

Though the point in her speech was resolved, Hillary’s night was far from over. There was a lot riding on this address, and she needed to strike the perfect chord with the endorsement. She couldn’t afford to alienate her remaining loyalists. Her advisers even feared that supporters might walk out if she was too strong in her endorsement. She knew that 10 percent of them would never go over to Obama, but she had to make sure she could move the other 90 percent. Yet neither could she come up short in praising Obama. It wasn’t really an either-or proposition. If she failed to give a hearty enough endorsement, she might severely and permanently damage her own standing in the Democratic Party. No one wanted to relive the awful moment when Ted Kennedy refused to join hands with Jimmy Carter after their 1980 primary fight.

Hillary stayed up with the speech past four a.m., and then it was circulated to top advisers. Garin, the chief strategist, was dumbstruck at the final version, which he thought had too much about Hillary and not enough about Obama. He e-mailed an F-word-punctuated missive that the revisions had to go.

To this day, there are still disagreements among Hillary’s advisers about the degree to which edits were made that morning. “There was no resistance or reluctance to change it back,” said one source who sided with Garin’s view. “It’s not like there was a real fight over this.”

But a friend who favored Hillary’s version disputed that conclusion. “There were a lot of attempts by some people in that other camp to [put in] more refrains about Obama,” the friend said. “She kind of ended up where she was overnight.”

* * *

Unity, it turned out, was more than just a sentiment for Hillary to express. It was also the name of a remote town she had to visit to prove her loyalty. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe was obsessed with the symbolism that Unity, New Hampshire, held for the forced union of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Not only did the small town’s name provide the ideal message for the absorption of the Hillary camp into Obama’s fold, but Unity had given each candidate 107 votes in the February primary. Unity was a metaphor for Plouffe himself: the perfect marriage of data and messaging. Perhaps that’s why he was so taken—much more so than anyone else— with the idea of staging the first public joint postprimary event in a tiny burg an hour west of Concord.

It would have been far easier logistically for Obama and Clinton to rally the Democratic faithful in northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., in a major swing state. After all, they had been at the Mayflower in Washington the night before. To get to Unity, about five hundred miles away, the rivals, and their embittered aides, had to gather in close quarters on an airplane and fly about ninety minutes from Washington to New Hampshire. As if that weren’t enough punishment, they then boarded a bus for an hour-long ride to Unity Elementary School.

Every presidential campaign event is carefully staged, but Unity was as precisely choreographed as a ballet. Staffers even e-mailed to make sure Obama’s periwinkle tie would go with Clinton’s pantsuit. The Obama campaign staff had never been assigned seats for a flight until they boarded the jet. An Obama aide dutifully made name tags for the handful of people on the plane, who were as recognizable to one another as a nose tackle is to a center. Obama settled into a window seat in the second row. Clinton sat beside him. She traveled light: Huma Abedin and traveling press director Jamie Smith were the only aides with her.

On the flight, Obama and Hillary discussed what she and her husband could do to help him in the general election. Hillary told him that they would go all out, but warned him that the rest of her base might be more difficult to  sway. She felt obligated to push them, but it wasn’t easy for her. She wanted Obama to understand that it wouldn’t happen overnight; just like his backers wouldn’t have jumped into her camp immediately if she had won the primary. “Look,” she told him as they flew north, “the harder part is going to be convincing my supporters at the grassroots, at the donor level, everything in between, to be enthusiastic about your campaign.”

Enthusiasm on the plane could have used a boost as well. “A lot of people in Hillaryland were holding their noses while they were doing this,” said one former top aide with knowledge of the trip. And the feeling was mutual. On Obama’s side, Plouffe harbored an intense hatred for Hillary. The campaign had also worn on Hillary’s relationship with David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser. A decade earlier Hillary had spoken at the first annual fund-raising dinner for CURE, the epilepsy charity established by Axelrod and his wife, Susan, in honor of their daughter, who suffers from the condition, and Clinton thanked Axelrod in the acknowledgments of her memoir Living History. David Axelrod later said that Hillary was the “patron saint” of CURE and that she didn’t “hold the sin of the father against the mother and daughter,” but Susan Axelrod acknowledged that there was “a little discomfort” in the relationship during the campaign. Hillary compared a conversation with Axelrod on the bus from the airport to Unity to a “root canal.”

“Hello, Unity!” she exclaimed, with a clenched smile, when she took the makeshift stage in an open field before a roaring crowd of about four thousand people. “Unity is not only a beautiful place, as we can see, it’s a wonderful feeling, isn’t it?” As she spoke, Obama appeared locked into her every word and was the first to applaud in the right places. When she wrapped up, he kissed her and thanked her. Hillary patted his back. “You’re welcome,” she said.

The crowd cheered with approval, but exhalation rather than elation characterized the Obama and Clinton camps when the event ended. “I remember it was a big relief when it was over because it had gone smoothly,” one Obama aide recalled. “Her people made an effort to be magnanimous.”

There may have been residual tension after Unity, but Obama and Clinton didn’t have either the time or the mental energy to dwell in it. Nearly two weeks later they appeared side by side yet again for a couple of fund-raisers in New York, where they basked in each other’s celebrity. For Obama, it was another introduction to Hillary’s vast donor base. For Clinton, it was an opportunity to help pay off some of the backbreaking campaign debt—more than $22 million still remained—that she had racked up in her desperate attempt to catch Obama. (At one fund-raiser, Obama had to double back to the microphone after leaving the stage. He had forgotten to ask his donors to write checks for Clinton and had to remind them to fill out the forms at their tables.) For her part, Hillary still struggled with many of her top donors, cajoling them to bankroll a Democratic victory without her on the ticket.

Over that summer, as Obama marched toward the presidency, Hillary quietly held a series of postmortem meetings with aides and advisers in her Senate office and at the house on Whitehaven Street. Each had a slightly different tenor, tone, and purpose, but all were generally aimed at figuring out what went wrong, at learning from the mistakes, and at plotting the rest of her career.

It didn’t take her long to figure out the basics of why the campaign had imploded. “I was struck by how good of a sense she had before I walked in there of the problems that were going on in [the headquarters],” said one adviser. “She had a mosaic pieced together that if you read a transcript of it, you would have thought it was someone who sat at headquarters every day, and it was remarkably accurate. . . . She just had it pegged.”

In the  meetings, almost everyone told her that she had hired the wrong people for some of the top jobs. Patti Solis Doyle, the campaign’s first manager, and chief strategist Mark Penn bore the brunt of those complaints. But others, including communications chief Howard Wolfson and policy director Neera Tanden, also suffered from what one aide told her was an “arrogance of the people on top.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this?” she asked the aide. “We did,” he replied.

The reviews shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, given that advisers had warned Hillary before the campaign not to make Doyle the campaign manager and that midway through the race Doyle had been demoted in favor of longtime Hillary confidante Maggie Williams. Of course, Penn, Doyle, and the rest of Hillary’s high command were convenient scapegoats. Ultimately, Hillary was responsible for her own dysfunctional operation, and she would have a lot to learn about managing the next political campaign.

Reprinted from "HRC" by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes.  Copyright © 2014. Published by Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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