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A Clintonite in Denver

By Howard Wolfson
Monday, September 1, 2008

For many of us who were part of the Clinton campaign, Sen. Barack Obama's appeal was something we understood only in the abstract -- data in polls, faces at a televised rally.

Most of us never heard him speak in person. At work 14 hours a day in the war room, we focused on his perceived faults and deficiencies. Our time was spent sharpening and advancing arguments. Skepticism was critical to our efforts. Insulated from Obamamania, I met few Obama supporters and distanced myself from the ones I knew. I lived this way for 18 months.

From the outside, our loss may have seemed inevitable for months, but inside the campaign we simply kept going. Each late victory brought false hope. We were finally doing too well to stop, but never well enough to win. We fought so long because we believed so strongly in our candidate; sustained by the passions of our supporters, we hoped that, as long as we kept moving, we could keep failure at bay.

Once we ran out of states and the campaign ended, we were like Rip Van Winkle. We awoke to a world transformed by political currents we had stood against. There was the neighbor in an Obama T-shirt getting the morning paper. Every parked car on the street bore an Obama bumper sticker. Had they been there along, or did they pop up overnight?

I fled the country, overcoming a fear of flying to travel abroad three times in two months. I avoided the papers and television. Media postmortems rehashed familiar feuds and created new rifts. I had no answers when my 3-year-old daughter asked why Hillary had lost or where all the Hillary signs had gone.

Many of us arrived in Denver reluctantly, feeling like uninvited guests at someone else's party. What the media described as division felt more like defeat.

Michelle Obama and both Hillary and Bill Clinton did their part to change that during the Democratic National Convention's first days. Their speeches struck the right tones of unity, softening hearts made hard by months of fighting and appealing to our common values as Democrats and Americans.

Then came Thursday night at Invesco Field. During the campaign, we scoffed at events like this, mostly because we were not capable of producing them. A cross section of voters waited for hours to enter the stadium and take their seats. As one friend put it, it looked more like an American convention than the convention of any particular political party.

Clinton delegates greeted one another with tears and hugs and were greeted in turn by Obama delegates. Several Obama supporters took my hand to thank me for what the Clintons had said that week, urging that they stay involved in the campaign. Every so often, I would simply look around me, amazed at the significance not just of the day but of the entire campaign.

The setting raised the bar for Obama's speech. The task before him: Explain what change meant and how it would be accomplished while weaving his own biography into the fabric of America's and laying out an appropriate contrast with John McCain.

No one in recent history had attempted this kind of a political conversation with 75,000 people. Barack Obama pulled it off.

For 18 months, I listened to Obama on television, sometimes intently, often just barely -- background noise to a running series of conference calls and meetings and e-mails.

In person, my attention undivided, I saw something of what so many others had seen for so long.

Progress in America is never cheap, and even today history exacts a price for Obama's victory -- the dreams of electing the first female president, the dreams of so many who rushed toward Hillary Clinton on rope lines across America and refused to give up her hand and their hopes. Today these dreams are giving way to another kind of progress.

For me, the presidential campaign began in a crowded Iowa hall, where I saw a man my age lift up a daughter around my daughter's age and tell her that one day she could be president. Last week things came nearly full circle, when I saw another man my age lift up another child and say the very same thing.

The writer, a partner at the Glover Park Group, was communications director of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign. He blogs at GothamAcme.com.

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