By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
For Barack Obama in June 2008, Ulysses Grant in April 1865 offers a useful role model.
After a long and brutal civil war, Grant sought Robert E. Lee's surrender, reminding him of the "hopelessness of further resistance" and urging him to prevent "any further effusion of blood."
When Lee finally accepted that reality, Grant was "magnanimous in victory," as Jay Winik writes in "April 1865," his account of that fateful month. The Union general let Lee choose the time and place of his surrender and agreed to terms designed to avoid, Grant later explained, "an unnecessary humiliation."
Lee's officers were allowed to keep their horses and personal weapons; Grant provided food for Lee's hungry troops. "This will have a very happy effect upon my army," a grateful Lee declared.
Obama's battle with Hillary Clinton is, of course, far less consequential. For all the round-the-clock coverage, the world will little note nor long remember a party primary fight. Yet Grant's behavior at Appomattox is nonetheless instructive about the task facing Obama. Certainly, how Clinton conducts herself in the months ahead has important implications both for Obama's prospects in November and Clinton's future beyond that.
But how deftly Obama handles the endgame can shape the reaction of Clinton, and Clinton's army, to what feels at the moment like a crushing defeat. Winning gracefully can be as hard as -- and more important than -- losing gracefully.
To talk to the partisans in both campaigns is to understand the degree of healing that is required. Any primary fight ends with bruised feelings and nursed grievances. This one, having lasted longer, has more than its share.
Saturday's epic battle at the meeting of the party's ordinarily obscure Rules and Bylaws Committee offers a case in point.
From the Obama camp's view, its side had the raw power to impose far harsher terms than what was ultimately agreed on, and it deserves credit for pulling back. The Clinton forces, despite their good deal, stubbornly refused to compromise, even in defeat.
From the perspective of the Clinton campaign, its candidate was arbitrarily and unjustly deprived of delegates she had won, as the party summarily swept aside its rules to resolve the mess.
Both sides are correct, actually. But Obama, on the verge of victory, would have been well advised to give just a little bit more -- four more delegates, to be precise, that the Clinton campaign claims were "hijacked," to use Harold Ickes's powerful description, from its Michigan vote.
Don Fowler, the former party chairman who supported Clinton but ultimately accepted the compromise, describes his conversations on this point with the Obama negotiator. "I said . . . this is nuts. Why don't you give them this and make you look magnanimous and everybody would be content. . . . They had the votes so they won the day on that, but it certainly engendered a lot of ill will."
This is not a judgment about who was right and who was wrong in this arcane fight. It's a strategic point about what kind of attitude and effort it will take to reunite a party whose voters have been split down the middle.
Obama does not need to, should not and almost surely will not offer the vice presidency to Clinton. The chemistry between them is too frosty and the level of trust nonexistent -- not to mention that the White House is not big enough to accommodate three people who believe they should be president.
Still, there are numerous ways Obama can help smooth things over, and there are signs, in his recent public statements and private conversations, that he is taking such steps. The Clinton campaign has fumed that it has not been given enough credit for the outpouring of new Democratic voters. It was annoyed that the Obama campaign kept pounding on Clinton's ill-advised remark about Robert F. Kennedy -- even after she apologized. It was even more steamed that Obama did not apologize to Clinton herself after she had been ridiculed by the Rev. Michael Pfleger in an appearance May 25 at Obama's (now former) church.
Finally, in recent days the tone has started to change. In a conversation this week with an uncommitted superdelegate, Obama was effusive in his praise of his opponent and what her campaign achieved. The other day, Obama said he had spoken with Clinton and offered to meet "at a time and place of her choosing."
He could have been channeling Grant.