Clintonites at Arm's Length

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, July 10, 2008

"I would say he was pretty underwhelming," a longtime Democratic activist said several days after he and some 200 other big-money supporters of Hillary Clinton's failed presidential campaign met with the victor, Barack Obama, in Washington on June 26. Gus will support and contribute to Obama as the party's nominee, but he is not enthusiastic about it.

He is not alone. After the closed-door session in the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel's ballroom, Gus was among 20 participants who gathered for drinks to talk it over. They agreed that it was not an "exciting performance" by the candidate who has entranced monster rallies across the country. Obama was "low-key" in a perfunctory appeal to them.

The Clintonites do not feel alienated, as supporters of Edward M. Kennedy did in 1980, when they never resigned themselves to Jimmy Carter's renomination. None of these loyal Democrats talked about sitting out the general election campaign against John McCain or locking up their bank accounts. Since a donation does not indicate the benefactor's degree of enthusiasm, what difference does it make if they're not enthusiastic? It signals a lack of confidence by important Democrats in a candidate whose charisma is supposed to cancel out his inexperience.

Only one member of the Mayflower group whom I contacted (the one least critical of Obama) was willing to let his name be used. Gus is a multimillionaire trial lawyer whose name would be widely recognized as a Democratic money man. He is no "Friend of Bill" who automatically signed on with the former president's wife. With his support sought by several of the presidential candidates, Gus at one point considered backing Obama but ended up with Clinton because she seemed the best qualified, most electable Democrat. Contrary to the media consensus, Gus found the Clinton campaign to be one of the best-managed in his wide experience.

Just what Gus and his friends were seeking in the encounter with Obama is unclear, but they left dissatisfied. As has been reported, Obama said that he and his wife, Michelle, each were writing the maximum $2,300 check to help erase Clinton's massive campaign debt. Obama added that he would ask his supporters to contribute as well.

But, in the opinion of the Clintonites, he did not open the door to his campaign, because he asked nothing of them. Big-money Democrats who could have expected to be named U.S. ambassadors by a President Hillary Clinton realized that they would get nothing from a President Obama. The train had left the station, and they were not aboard.

Terry McAuliffe, long the Clintons' faithful political servitor and Hillary's presidential campaign chairman, played the cheerleader after the meeting. "This is unity!" he declared to reporters assembled in the Mayflower's long lobby. Vernon Jordan, another longtime Clintonite, was similarly upbeat.

But the tone of what really happened inside the locked ballroom was quite different once Obama and Hillary Clinton had their cordial say and the floor was opened for questions. The first "questioner," an angry woman from New York, demanded a roll call of presidential preference at the Denver convention. Next came another distraught woman who declared that Clinton's candidacy was the victim of "misogyny." One participant told me, "This is as tough a crowd as Obama is going to face the whole campaign."

It was so tough that Lanny Davis, the participant who let me use his name, tried to change the mood. Davis, who was a Clinton White House aide and remains a fervent supporter of both Clintons, rose to say that the presidential contest had been painful in dividing Democratic families -- alienating him from his Obama-supporting son, Seth Davis, the prominent college basketball reporter. Now, he said, they are together again.

But Davis admitted to me that there is "a lot that needs to be done" for all wounds to be healed. "It's going to take a long time," Gus said of achieving unity. The minds of the Clintonites are with Obama, but not their hearts. That helps explain why the presidential race appears close in what otherwise shapes up to be a horrible year for Republicans, and that is why the nominee's "underwhelming" performance at the Mayflower is important.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company