For nearly three full days, Bill and Hillary Clinton owned the Democratic National Convention – an extraordinary act of domination by the losers. But late on Wednesday night Barack Obama walked on stage to join Joe Biden, the vice-presidential nominee, and the mood changed with a snap. Mr Obama was tomorrow’s man, the first African-American nominated for America’s highest office by a major party. The Clintons and all their dramas suddenly seemed the stuff of history.
With their own goals in mind, the Clintons played their assigned roles – to heal the divisions they had helped to create. The Obama camp let them stay centre stage for what seemed like an eternity, but it was a Faustian pact. In return, they had to make peace and give him their full support. As they smoothed the way for him, they created a downward political arc for themselves. And, as almost always happens with the Clintons, they gave another intriguing glimpse of their unconventional marriage. In this final act, they were implicit rivals – for the applause of delegates, approval of television viewers and verdict of historians.
The suspense of the convention turned on the aggrieved Mrs Clinton supporters who threatened to sit on the sidelines in November or vote for Republican John McCain out of spite. In the last months of the primaries, Mrs Clinton had campaigned overtly as a feminist, finding common cause with women who felt passed over, sweeping in working-class men and older voters. When she lost, Mrs Clinton insisted that her supporters needed “catharsis”, prompting conspiratorial mutterings about a possible coup, floor fight or roll-call vote that would irretrievably damage Mr Obama.
As it turned out, she found her own catharsis in her prime-time speech, preceded by a glowing filmed tribute. Cool and correct, she hit all the requisite points, vowing support for Mr Obama and warning her “sisterhood of the travelling pant-suits” against voting for Mr McCain. But the speech was all about her, appliquéd with Obama stickers at various intervals. Most strikingly, she made only one glancing reference to “President Clinton”.
Even more important was the film produced by her longtime friend, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, a guest during the Clintons’ last days in the White House, who left a short note on the pillow in her room saying, “I’ll be back.” Beyond the montage of testimonials and greatest hits from her campaign, the film reinforced Mrs Clinton as a feminist icon, with a narration by her daughter, Chelsea – pictured more than a dozen times – and with dewy paeans to her mother. Bill Clinton rated just three fleeting glimpses, identified as “Hillary’s husband”.
The price of that adulation was Mrs Clinton’s pivotal role the following day to unify the party: a tightly choreographed manoeuvre when she asked the convention to suspend its roll-call vote and nominate Mr Obama by acclamation. It was the first time a losing candidate in effect crowned the winner, and she spoke her prepared lines – “With eyes firmly fixed on the future in the spirit of unity ... ” – with conviction. Her customary artifice subsided, her natural combativeness ebbed and the “Good Hillary” yielded to the historic significance of the moment. In a burst of singing and dancing, even her diehards rode the emotional wave.
Mr Clinton had his own goal for his speech: to restore his reputation as a loyal Democrat and burnish his legacy. “I love this,” he beamed, after three minutes of a standing ovation. With his special political genius he recognised that he stood at a turning point. Rather than resist it he embraced it, powerfully making the case for Mr Obama by filling in the blanks left by his wife. The former high-school drum major twirled his political baton effortlessly, connecting himself to Mr Obama for the first time, outshining his wife and even marginalising her, as she had sidelined him the night before.
Each Clinton set the stage for the changing of the guard. If Mr Obama loses in November, Mrs Clinton will be the early favourite for 2012. But the party is stingy with second chances. In 2012, she will be 65 and her baby-boomer generation will have surrendered its primacy to Generation X. Television documentaries will still show the Clintons alighting on their barnstorming bus tour after he won the nomination for the first time. But the film clips of yesteryear will seem grainy next to the digitised images of today. And justly so: by then, 20 years will have passed since the Clintons made American politics their own.
The writer is author of For Love of Politics: Inside the Clinton White House