Within days of losing the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, her aides said she was all business, returning to her Senate duties, telling people she would do whatever Obama asked her to do in the general election.
Bill Clinton is not over it. He’s trying, his associates say. He’s slowly getting to a better place. But his resentments from the bitter campaign battles of last winter and spring are many and diverse, and people who have spent time with him recently said they fester just below the surface.
For the next two days, a convention that belongs to Obama will be dominated by the same two people who dominated the Democratic Party for the last generation and who have come to Denver in much different roles than they wanted. She speaks Tuesday. It’s his turn Wednesday.
For the Clintons, the politics of the week are simple: Accept the cheers of the many Democrats who still support them, be lavish in their praise for Obama, make sure that if he loses no one can say it was because they were covertly rooting for that result.
But the psychology of the week is complicated. It requires them to muzzle what friends say are their deep and continuing doubts about Obama’s electability, qualifications and political character.
It also requires them to embrace a generational transition in which the Clintons — whose political personas once stood for youth and the excitement of change — are cast as sunset figures, two conventional politicians in their sixties being shoved aside by a charismatic young celebrity.
“They are both going to do what they have to do,” said one veteran of Bill Clinton’s White House who remains close to them. “That does not mean they will enjoy it.”
But Obama, too, is part of the Denver psychodrama. Some Democrats with high-level ties to both the Clinton and Obama camps said they were surprised that Obama has not done more to make the Clintons more enthusiastic about his candidacy.
Obama has taken the minimum public steps necessary to accommodate the Clintons, including giving them prime-time speaking spots.
But he has taken few of the extra steps that Clinton allies say would have gone miles toward fostering goodwill.
He did not work hard to help her retire her $24 million campaign debt.
He did not make a high-profile statement repudiating any suggestion that Bill Clinton played “the race card” in the nomination contest — an allegation that the former president considers grossly unfair and that continues to infuriate him.
Just as significant, Obama has maintained a certain cool diffidence toward the former president. They spoke by phone last week. But for weeks before that, associates said, Clinton had heard nothing and did not even know when he would be speaking at the convention. The Obama campaign’s only communication was a form letter sent to all delegates.
Clinton loves to offer advice to fellow Democrats. But even in their conversations, Clinton friends say, Obama shows little deference or signs that he thinks Clinton, the only Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win two terms, has any special wisdom to offer.
“There is a lot Obama could have done to unify the party, and basically he hasn’t lifted a finger,” said one Democratic operative who is close to the Clinton team.
Howard Wolfson, Hillary Clinton’s former communications director, wrote in the New Republic on Tuesday that Bill Clinton “feels like the Obama campaign ran against and systematically dismissed his administration’s accomplishments.
“And he feels like he was painted as a racist during the primary process. Sen. Obama would go a long way towards healing these wounds if he were to specifically praise the accomplishments of the Clinton presidency in a line or two during his speech on Thursday,&rdqu; Wolfson added.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), in a panel discussion Monday sponsored by The Denver Post, Politico and Yahoo News, agreed that significant healing is necessary over the next three days.
“Yes, there’s some wounds,” he said. “Yes, there’s some scabs. But sometimes, underneath a scab, there’s a little bit of pus, but we have to put some disinfectant on it so we that can heal the wound and move forward. That’s what the convention is about.”
The "central task" of Hillary Clinton this week is "to ease the sting of some of her supporters,” one of her top advisers explained.
The success of the healing effort will depend not just on what people say from the podium, but on how supporters in the Pepsi Center and in the national television audience react. This group includes high-level Democrats and people who were among the 18 million voters who backed Hillary Clinton in 2008.
“There is a group of Hillary people who are very angry, very upset,” a senior Clinton adviser said. “Some of it’s directed at the media. Very disappointed. You can’t control all those people. These are CEOs — some of them major, rich people.
“You can’t call them and tell them what to do. There is no question there is that category of people. But I don’t think people can blame her for their behavior. I think that’s probably unfair.”
This context is one obstacle Clinton must navigate in her Tuesday speech, said Harold Ickes, a longtime senior adviser to both Clintons.
“It could be a very emotional night,” said Ickes. “Her challenge is to make the most of the emotion without popping the roof off” with what might be interpreted as a sign that many Clinton supporters are not reconciled to her defeat.
The same dynamic is shaping the convention roll call vote, in which Clinton’s name will be placed in nomination to give her delegates one last chance to express their support. Hillary Clinton aides said the idea was pushed more by the Obama team than her side.
But now that the vote is taking place, they said, Hillary Clinton is deeply anxious about it. On the one hand, she wants to get at least 1,000 delegates to register their support — anything less could be an embarrassment. On the other hand, it was her idea to organize a floor whip operation to make sure none of her supporters are unruly or vocally criticize Obama.
Beyond the challenges of Denver, both Clintons confront a broader question: How to relaunch their public careers in the wake of the 2008 disappointment.
Few Clinton associates interviewed believed there was any doubt she would run for president again if Obama should lose. And the Clintons believe a Democratic loss is entirely possible. They no longer vocalize their beliefs that Obama has scant experience and faces huge problems connecting with lower-income whites and other key voting blocs. But the criticism they leveled last winter and spring — both publicly and more sharply in private conversations with top Democrats — were entirely sincere at the time, and have not gone away.
As Hillary Clinton looks to the future, an ex-aide said, “She wants to reassert her relevance and introduce a new political identity.
“I think she understands that if she runs again, she has to run a different style of campaign,” this ex-aide said. “And she’s got a huge opening right now: For the first time in her career, she actually has a base to invigorate. At the beginning of the '08 campaign, she was the issue: She had to explain herself, her celebrity. Now she’s got a base — the working class — and she needs to speak to them.”
For Bill Clinton, the challenge is even more complicated. Prior to his wife’s presidential campaign, his reputation had moved to a different realm. It was ess about domestic politics and was centered on overseas work, such as promoting AIDS treatment in the developing world.
He wants to return to the elder statesman role, friends said. But his own grievances from 2008 — toward the news media, and toward Obama — are an obstacle.
In public remarks over the years, Clinton has said many times that his biggest mistakes in life came when he was tired or angry. During his wife’s campaign, he was often both — sometimes with good reason, as he witnessed errors by his wife’s advisers or endured what even many media commentators have called a pro-Obama bias in news coverage.
Clinton several times became ill-tempered in public, called Obama’s anti-Iraq message a “fairy tale” and denounced a widely respected journalist as a “scumbag.” His tirades during daily campaign conference calls became so frequent that some of his wife’s strategists stopped getting on the phone.
What’s more — contrary to his public reputation as a politician who is masterful at playing the angles — Bill Clinton has proved often over the years that he is among the most transparent of politicians. As president, people who wanted to know what he really thought simply needed to listen to his evening fundraisers, when he would regularly skate off-message with his unfiltered ruminations.
That’s why aides are sharply limiting access to him now, until he has more time to put his feelings about Obama into perspective. Both Clintons declined repeated interview requests from Politico.
Bill Clinton believes the Democratic nominee, far from practicing a unifying, transformational brand of politics, has the political instincts of “a Chicago thug,” one longtime associate said. Clinton has told people that Obama allowed surrogates to try to suppress Hispanic turnout in the Nevada caucuses, and played “the race card” in reverse against the Clintons in South Carolina and other states.
In a testy interview with ABC News during an Africa tour for his foundation a few weeks ago — one that convinced Clinton he should not give interviews for a while — he vowed that he would unload with his real feelings about the campaign after the general election: “I have very strong feelings about it.”
Paul Begala, a longtime aide to the Clintons, said he was not surprised that the two of them have acted differently in the wake of the campaign.
“Hillary is very goal-oriented, and so the goal shifted from ‘I’ve got to win’ to ‘Barack’s got to win,’” Begala said. “With Bill Clinton, the transition was harder because he wasn’t the candidate. It’s difficult when the candidate [and the target of Obama’s primary campaign] is his wife.”
John F. Harris is editor in chief of Politico and the author of “The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House.”