One of Barack Obama’s closest and most trusted advisers has a lot to say about the president’s “peaks and valleys” relationship with Hillary Clinton, his former rival who is now the Democratic front-runner for president in 2016.
In a new book, “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics,” veteran campaign and White House aide David Axelrod described in detail a number of interactions between the two then-senators during the 2008 Democratic primary.
Perhaps none of those interactions was more tense than Clinton and Obama facing off at a Washington airport tarmac. Billy Shaheen, a Clinton surrogate and husband of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire), had just suggested Obama sold drugs in his youth and the Clinton campaign wanted to disavow the comment.
“She’ll tell you how sorry she is for Shaheen’s remark and assure you that she and her campaign had nothing to do with it,” Axelrod said he told Obama before the tarmac powwow. “Then they will leak that she personally apologised.”
Here’s what Axelrod said happened next:
“The conversation seemed to begin calmly enough, as Hillary spoke and Barack listened. Then, when Barack responded, Hillary became very agitated, jabbing her finger at him and speaking in an animated fashion. The exchange went on for ten minutes, as [their personal aides] toed the ground and gazed skyward, looking as if they wanted to be just about anywhere but on the tarmac bearing witness to this unfriendly encounter between their bosses. At one point, Barack put his hand on Hillary’s shoulder in what appeared to be an effort to calm things down, but she brushed it away. …. She apologised. She said she’d had no idea Billy was going to attack the way he had and certainly hadn’t approved it. Then, when accepting her apology, Barack said each of them had to take responsibility for the actions and tone of their campaigns, Hillary got angry. She recounted a catalogue of affronts she felt she endured from us. It wasn’t Hillary’s words that struck Barack, but her demeanor.”
After the exchange, Obama reportedly told Axelrod, “For the first time in this campaign, I saw fear in her eyes.”
Below are some other Hillary moments Axelrod described in his book:
The Jefferson Jackson Dinner
The dinner is a marquee event for Democrats seeking to court caucus voters in Iowa, the first primary state to weigh in on the presidential race. Axelrod suggested Obama wanted to rattle Clinton during her speech by making sure she could see her main foe in the audience:
“Barack and Michelle sat about a table about twenty feet away, listening with an air of studied calm to his rival’s presentation. He had been given the option of waiting in a holding room before his speech. ‘No, I want to see Hillary,’ he said — and, perhaps, he also wanted her to see him.”
Bill Clinton’s ‘Jesse Jackson’ Comment
Former President Bill Clinton, Hillary’s husband, severely damaged the relationship between Obama and the Clintons by comparing Obama to civil rights activist Jesse Jackson after he won the South Carolina primary in 2008. Axelrod said it took “years to heal” the wound:
“His point was abundantly clear. No big deal. The black guy had won the black primary. The dismissive remark didn’t require a response or any significant spin. Everyone could see it for what it was. The media blowback for both Clintons was fierce, and the hard feelings between the forty-second president of the United States and the man who would become the forty-fourth would take years to heal fully.”
Obama also had his own gaffes to deal with. During one debate, Clinton was asked about polls indicating she had a likability problem and Obama dismissively interjected, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” According to Axelrod, Obama couldn’t see what the problem was:
“The faint praise came off as a rare ungracious note. Barack seemed, for an instant, dismissive and well . . . unlikable. Hillary, on the other hand, parried an uncomfortable question about her perceived shortcomings with grace, good humour, and even charm. When we raised the matter with Barack afterward, he was surprised and frustrated that a debate in which he had generally performed well would be remembered for what he regarded as a throwaway line. ‘Seriously? That’s the story?’ he asked in disbelief.”
‘A Prescription for More of the Same’
Despite offering effusive praise for her elsewhere in his book, Axelrod also tore into Clinton for her allegedly phony embrace of Obama’s 2008 “change” message.
“She was too much a part of the system in Washington ever to change it — and without changing the politics of Washington, real solutions to big problems would never come,” Axelrod wrote.
One chapter was especially brutal on Clinton. There, Axelrod said Clinton embraced “divisive politics” and corporate lobbyists while shying away from taking on tough issues:
“She had pressed her advantage on Washington experience and gamely parried our call for change by embracing the word. Yet the ‘change’ Hillary was offering was not much change at all — certainly not a move away from the raw, divisive politics that had come to define Washington. Rather, she seemed to revel in those politics. (‘So if you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I’m your girl,’ she boasted.) The change she was offering was not away from Washington’s habit of parsing words and passing on tough issues. (She habitually sought safe harbour.) The change she was offering was not away from a system dominated by PACs and corporate lobbyists. (She had taken their money and vocally defended their work.) The only real change she was offering was in political parties, and that simply wasn’t enough. … In the memo, we said our task now was to ‘create a distinct and sustained contrast in all of our communications: …. Hillary Clinton is a prescription for more of the same, meaning that our shared goals will once again be frustrated by Washington’s failed politics.'”
Healing the Rift
After Obama ultimately defeated Clinton in the drawn-out campaign, he needed to be particularly gracious in order to ensure her supporters did not stray to the Republican party in the general election. According to Axelrod, both Clintons were “wounded and seething” after the Obama campaign’s own aggressive attacks:
“Beyond the satisfaction of doing the right thing, we needed to bring the Clintons, wounded and seething, back into the fold. The [victory speech] draft we sent Barack Obama reflected that imperative, lavishing praise on Hillary as a worthy opponent and a critical future ally in pursuit of progress for the country.”
Obama and Clinton held their big “unity” event in the tiny town of Unity, New Hampshire. Axelrod said he expected the lengthy plane and car ride to be awkward, but Obama and Clinton apparently got along with “intense” but friendly conversation:
“Yet on the flight from DC, Hillary and Barack sat next to each other and seemed to be engage in intense, friendly conversation. Then when we hit the road to Unity, Hillary regaled us with stories of her travels with John McCain, laughing heartily about some vodka-drinking episode on an official trip to Estonia.”
Obama ultimately rebuffed Democrats who pushed him to pick Clinton to be his vice presidential nominee. However, Obama “stunned” Axelrod and his other advisers by offering Clinton a job as secretary of state.
“Well, we were friends before we were opponents,” Obama reportedly explained.
Axelrod said Clinton initially turned down the offer, but after Obama continued asking her, she “relented, and the warm partnership they built would become one of the inspiring subplots of my time in the administration.”
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