In the final speech of her bid for the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton said things that she couldn’t, and wouldn’t, say during the 16 months she spent running for president.
She offered an unstinting, repeated endorsement of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, putting to rest any suggestion that she would play coy after a bruising primary campaign.
And she broke what had been a disciplined silence on women’s rights and women’s grievances, expressing an open feminism that she’d deliberately understated during the campaign.
“I endorse him and throw my full support behind him," Clinton said, after announcing that she had suspended her campaign. She called on her supporters to "take our energy, our passion, our strength and do all we can to help elect Barack Obama the next president of the United States."
Clinton spoke to a crowd of perhaps 2,000 supporters in the National Building Museum in Washington, a cavernous neoclassical space punctuated by eight giant Corinthian columns.
Her endorsement was met with wide applause and a faint undertone of echoing boos, but she ignored them as she plowed, with determination if not joy, through extended praise for Obama’s character and his policies.
"I've had a front-row seat to his candidacy and seen his strength and determination, his grace and his grit. In his own life, Barack Obama has lived the American dream," she said. "He has dedicated himself to ensuring the dream is realized."
Clinton’s endorsement put to rest the closest primary in modern American history, and she went out of the way to thank her supporters and highlight the depth of her support, thanking “18 million of you from all walks of life” who cast ballots for her.
By using that number, Clinton insisted on a measure that gives her more votes than Obama — a dispute that has outlived the primary. But it was a footnote to a speech that insisted on reconciliation, and that was met instantly by a call from Obama’s campaign to his supporters — via e-mail and text message — that they send Clinton messages of thanks.
“I am thrilled and honored to have Sen. Clinton's support,” Obama said in a statement. “But more than that, I honor her today for the valiant and historic campaign she has run. She shattered barriers on behalf of my daughters and women everywhere, who now know that there are no limits to their dreams.”
The suspension of Clinton’s campaign means that she is still able to raise money to retire a reported $30 million in debt, but she has effectively withdrawn from the race.
Relieved Democratic leaders also welcomed Clinton’s speech.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi congratulated Clinton “for her courageous and groundbreaking campaign,” adding that she had “inspired millions and unleashed the power of women as they voted in record numbers at the ballot box.”
Clinton, too, took the opportunity of her concession to call attention to a lifelong cause that had gone almost unmentioned during a campaign in which advisers worried that explicit appeals to women and explicit feminism would compromise her impression of strength.
Clinton recalled that she was asked often on the trail about running to be the first woman president, and that she always gave the same response: that "I was proud to be running as a woman but I was running because I thought I would be the best president."
This time she went further.
"But I am a woman, and like millions of women I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious, and I want to build an America that embraces and respects the potential of every last one of us."
"We must make sure that women and men alike understand the struggles of their grandmothers and their mothers and that women enjoy equal opportunities, equal pay and equalrespect," she said.
She stressed the word “respect” and drew some of the loudest applause from the largely female crowd for it.
Her endorsement of Obama, too, drew applause, but there was also a unconcealed bitterness from some in the audience about how Clinton had been treated — by her rivals and by the media.
In the back of the room, a few women exchanged e-mail addresses and phone numbers and talked about organizing a campaign to write in Clinton’s name in November as a protest.
“Why I’m crying today is because Hillary was a symbol that I’ve been waiting for for my whole lifetime,” said Caroline Cook, 40, of Washington, D.C., who had volunteered for Clinton around the country, and said she would not vote for Obama in November, and dismissed Clinton’s endorsement as “forced.”
“There is a lot of anger out there,” she said.
The dominant emotion at the Building Museum, though, was sadness, not anger, and Clinton supporters could be seen clapping through tears at Obama’s name.
“Her supporters will do whatever they can do to elect Barack Obama,” said her campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe. “She will do whatever Sen. Obama asks her to do,” including “be on the ticket.”
Clinton herself warned against asking “if only” or “what if.”
“Don’t go there,” she told her supporters.
“Now it's time to restore the ties that bind us together, and to come together,” Clinton said. “We may have started on separate journeys but today our paths have merged.”