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Obama, Bill Clinton Remain Distant
Despite Similar Stories, a Complex Relationship

By David Maraniss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama -- in so many ways two sides of the same coin. Old heat and new cool, two guys who came out of nowhere, bereft of early connections, overcoming the odds. Each raised by a single mother and grandparents, in blended families featuring a variety of half siblings, with lost and distant fathers and stepfathers and no strong male role models. Both drawing on uncommon will, Ivy League legal training, mental agility, innate adaptability and the symbolism of hope to reach the heights of American politics.

"They are very similar in their strengths and weaknesses," noted Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, who views the two men from a unique perspective as a congressman from Obama's home town, Chicago, and a former White House aide to Clinton.

Take away the context of this campaign year, and they could be pals, perhaps even big and little brothers of the Democratic family -- the so-called first black president mentors a prospective real black president. But context is everything in politics, and because of that their relationship is anything but close.

When the former president takes the convention stage tonight on the eve of Obama's historic nomination, seizing however briefly the undivided attention of his party and the nation, he intends to do what is expected of him, according to many friends and associates, and try to convince the public that Obama has the toughness and wisdom to be commander in chief. But though the speech might be as important to Clinton as it is to Obama, those close to him say he will deliver it with lingering feelings of estrangement that have surprisingly little to do with the fact that Obama defeated his wife in the primaries.

"Obama does not like Clinton, and Clinton knows it," asserted one longtime Clinton adviser, a refrain that several compatriots repeated almost word for word, though occasionally in stronger terms.

Whether the reverse is true, and whether it matters as much, are less clear. Clinton associates say he was embittered earlier this summer but appears to have moved past that. They noticed a change at a dinner in Las Vegas on Aug. 19 celebrating his 62nd birthday, where, as one friend put it, "he was very matter-of-fact about it all." It appears obvious to people on both sides that Obama and Clinton are acute political animals who could bridge the divide if it became mutually beneficial for their long-term prospects. But Clinton and his friends are uncertain that Obama sees the necessity yet.

There is a history to all this, going back to the time when Clinton urged voters not to buy into the "fairy tale" of Obama's rise, but the latest expression of unease surfaced this week in connection with the subject of Clinton's speech. Several of his associates complained, though not for attribution, that it is a misuse of his skills and policy achievements to have him speak on national security instead of the national economy, which boomed during the eight years of his presidency. One old Clinton hand said he broached the subject with a senior Obama aide -- arguing that no one could better deliver a new variation of the golden-oldie 1992 theme, it's the economy, stupid -- only to be dismissed vociferously with the exasperated phrase, "That's so typical Clinton!"

Eager to maintain the image of unity in Denver, officials in the Obama camp have tried to tamp down intimations of disarray beyond the long-running rebellion of many Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters. They stress that Obama and the senator from New York get along well on a personal level and are comfortably familiar with one another after 16 months as combatants on the campaign trail.

But the senator's husband presents a more complex dynamic. Even though he once commented that he thought he "understood" Obama, the former president and the would-be one are as unfamiliar with one another as they are alike.

"I think they don't know each other well," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said when asked about the relationship. But, he insisted, "Senator Obama does seek out Bill Clinton's counsel." As evidence, Obama aides point to a telephone conversation between the two men that took place last Thursday, and was said to last 30 minutes and cover a "broad range" of topics involving the campaign and the country.

Last night, Obama called Clinton again, according to Burton, praising his wife's speech and thanking the Clintons for their support. Burton said he told Clinton he must have been as proud watching her as he had been watching Michelle Obama address the convention the night before.

Clinton associates, long familiar with his habits and rhythms, say it would take little more than phone calls on a somewhat regular basis to keep him satisfied. Attention has always been Clinton's lifeblood. "We all know that he wants to be loved. Just call him. Call him any time of day or night," said one associate. "Talk to him about anything. Talk to him about the Olympics or what he thinks about a certain congressional district or even about the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. Obama could even put the phone in a drawer and just let President Clinton talk away. It wouldn't take much. It could be so easy."

But beneath the superficial question of whether Obama talks to Clinton enough, or pays sufficient homage to him, rest deeper issues that go further in explaining their complicated relationship. These have to do with race and the legacy of the 1960s.

Throughout his life, as a son of the New South, Clinton took outsize pride in his attitudes and actions on race. As a young delegate to the Boys Nation convention in Washington in 1963 -- the summer of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, whose 45th anniversary is being celebrated at the Democratic convention this week -- Clinton was one of the few Southern delegates to support a civil rights plank. At Yale Law School, he was the lone white student to sit at what was called the black table. As a young professor at the University of Arkansas, he became a mentor to the first wave of African American law students.

During his rise to the presidency and while in the White House, he seemed preternaturally at ease in black churches, speaking the language of struggle and hope, and he looked to the black community as the foundation of his political support in good times and his salvation when he was in trouble.

So it came as a bitter irony this year that Clinton seemed to lose his footing on issues of race during his wife's presidential primary campaign. The rise of a black candidate discombobulated Bill Clinton, particularly in South Carolina when he was accused of dismissing Obama by likening his victory there to Jesse L. Jackson's in 1984 and 1988. Taylor Branch, a noted historian on racial politics, King biographer and longtime Clinton friend, who is writing a book detailing his private White House interviews with Clinton, said the former president was distraught by the popular interpretation that he had used code language to diminish Obama. "He was particularly upset about the race card deal," Branch recalled. "He said, 'I hate that phrase anyway. It makes it sound like a game -- playing a card -- when race is not a game and never was. It is deadly serious.' "

There is, from Branch's historical perspective, a natural progression from Clinton to Obama that in other circumstances could have created a political bond. Had Hillary not been in the race, he surmised, "I could see that Clinton might have endorsed him. Obama has a lot of attributes he values."

On the other hand, there also is a sensitive generational issue that further explains the distance between them. For more than 40 years, the country has been riven by a wide and amorphous range of issues and sensibilities that came out of the divisions of the 1960s. Clinton tried to overcome that divide with his notions of a "New Democrat" and a "third way" of looking at policies beyond the classic left and right, but he failed, in part because of the Monica S. Lewinsky sex scandal, which reinforced the stereotype of '60s undiscipline.

The Obama campaign wants no part of those old '60s aggrandizements. As spokesman Burton put it, "We're trying to fight a new fight."

Among the many parallels between Clinton and Obama is that they both first took the national stage with a convention speech four years before they won the nomination -- Clinton in Atlanta in 1988, and Obama four years ago in Boston. But while Obama received rave reviews for his keynote address, propelling him to where he stands today, Clinton bombed out with a speech that droned on and on until he received his loudest ovation for the words "and in closing." He blamed aides to nominee Michael Dukakis for junking up his speech and minimizing its importance by keeping the house lights on.

If there is to be a rapprochement between these two similar men, it more likely will come after the convention. Each has one powerful way that he needs the other. Obama could use Clinton to talk to rural and white working-class people; as one Clinton hand said, "One difference between the two guys is that Obama never had an Uncle Buddy who lived in a trailer." Clinton had a photograph of his Uncle Henry Oren "Buddy" Grisham, the quintessential good ol' boy, on his desk in the Oval Office. And Clinton just as much could use Obama to expiate his falling-out with the African American community.

Did they talk about this in their conversation last Thursday?

No one on either side has revealed the contents of that discussion, but one source said it was "on the right track" to consider the possibility of consecutive joint appearances at a black church and a union hall in Ohio or Pennsylvania -- not quite brotherhood, but two pragmatic and adaptable politicians closing the circle on their discontent.

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