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The Great Uniter

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The Great Uniter

Yesterday afternoon, California congresswoman and fervent Hillary Clinton supporter Loretta Sanchez attempted—and failed, exceptionally—to explain to MSNBC’s mini-Olbermann Dan Abrams why she hasn’t endorsed Barack Obama for president. Abrams guffawed with apt incredulity at the implications of extortion and self-involvement behind Sanchez’s suggestion that Camp Obama hasn’t done enough to encourage his supporters to pay down Clinton’s debts and that she would endorse him if only he would give her a jingle. The woman’s whiny, petty explanation seemed, at least to me, to be representative (pun intended) of many Clinton supporters’ ongoing complaints about the unfair treatment the former First Lady endured during the primary season and their threats of defection to Team McCain. Continued calls for “Hillary in 2012” while the ’08 election is still more than two months away have inspired an unexpected reaction in me: She lost. Get over it.

All of this lingering resentment among Clinton’s legion of followers (and make no mistake—that’s what they are) makes one question if the candidate herself has done enough to try to unite her party behind her former rival. Having her name put into nomination at the Democratic National Convention this week, and her claim that her supporters require a “catharsis” at the Denver event haven’t helped matters. Clinton gave a generous concession speech back in June, and her first joint appearance with Obama went off without a hitch, but it was her headline address at the convention last night that will change the way historians reflect on her groundbreaking campaign to become the first woman president of the United States, and it might just have been one of her finest moments as a politician.

Dressed in a sherbet-orange suit, Clinton thanked her “sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits” and implored them to unite with Obama’s supporters. She asked them what I—and many others—have been wondering for weeks: “Were you in this campaign just for me, or were you in it for that young Marine?” That Marine, of course, is the one she’s mentioned in countless rallies across the country over the last several months—the one who returned from Iraq wounded and asked Clinton to take care of his fellow soldiers still fighting in the region, and then take care of him. It’s a manipulative sob story, to be sure—the kind that American politicians have been using on the stump for decades, if not longer—but one whose larger question of loyalty and self-interest are paramount to uniting the Democratic party. For weeks, Clinton has been telling her supporters to get behind Obama, but it wasn’t until last night that she finally told them why (though, aside from a passing mention of the Supreme Court being “in a right-wing headlock,” she avoided the hot topic of abortion rights).

There was speculation about how much Clinton would go after her “friend” John McCain. But the McCain campaign is now (to no one’s surprise) employing the battle plan Clinton wrote, even using her in their ads, and she had no choice but to lash back and discount that contrived allegiance. Regardless of her differences with Obama, the enemy of your enemy is your friend and the Clintons have no bigger enemy than the Republicans. While Michelle Obama’s speech on the first night of the convention was a shining moment, sharply and stylishly capitalizing on the chance to reintroduce herself and her family to the American public, she lacks the grit and grace of a seasoned politician like Clinton, often seeming like she’s on the verge of body-checking someone. Clinton forcefully and, most notably, joyfully delivered blow after blow to McCain, relentlessly tying him to Bush’s failed policies. “It makes sense that George Bush and John McCain will be together next week in the Twin Cities,” she joked, “because these days they’re awfully hard to tell apart!” (Curiously, the speech was reportedly written by Clinton’s former chief strategist Mark Penn, the same man responsible for the New York senator’s failed “big-state strategy” and who, according to a leaked memo, urged her to publicly question if Obama’s values were “American” enough. She declined to do so.)

Much has been made about why Obama couldn’t fend Clinton off more completely during the primary, or why Clinton couldn’t withstand the insurgence of this relative newcomer to the national stage. The reason is that they were—and are—both exceptional candidates. Ali vs. Fraizer. Tyson vs. Holyfield. There’s no question that Clinton fought to win during the primary season, and often hit Obama below the belt. Now that she’s no longer fighting for own political life, she’s gained a composure, confidence and clarity she sometimes lacked throughout her own campaign. By doing what’s in the interest of her party and country, she has simultaneously proven herself worthy of the office she’d been seeking. Last night she once again sounded nothing less than presidential. Despite her upper-middle-class upbringing in suburban Illinois and a degree from Yale Law School, Clinton has managed to position herself as the candidate of the American worker, and she can help reposition the Democratic party as the party of the American worker, debunking the great lie that Republicans represent the middle class’s interests.

The most rousing part of Clinton’s largely unsentimental speech came when she evoked a fellow New Yorker from the late 19th century. “Harriet Tubman had one piece of advice,” she said. “If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If they’re shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going!” It was a moment that captured the essence of civil rights for women, blacks, gays and immigrants—groups she mentioned all by name—and Democrats at large. Chelsea Clinton, who narrated a preceding puff-piece video tribute to her mother, was teary-eyed when Clinton talked about the fight for women’s rights being handed down from mother to daughter. Bill Clinton bit his lip with pride at several points, suddenly making all of his strangely out-of-character faux pas throughout the past year make complete sense. Beyond unifying their party and helping to elect Barack Obama, the Clintons’ challenge at this year’s convention is to rehabilitate their image and, particularly for Bill, the Clinton legacy. When people say the name “Clinton” now, however, they’re talking about Hillary.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.