For 40 years, conventions have just been big TV shows that coronate nominees, and this year's festivities aren't going to be any different. But the extraordinary closeness of the Democratic contest and recent comments by Hillary and Bill Clinton have the media in a tizzy. Could we see a donnybrook in Denver after all?
A week ago, Hillary spoke at a closed-door fund-raiser in California. When video of the event eventually surfaced (natch), it made news. Hillary said there would be no attempt to get the nomination ("That is not going to happen") but she talked vaguely of a "strategy" for Denver and left the door wide open for what would be an extremely close roll-call vote on the third night of the convention. "I'm trying to avoid people walking away unhappy," Clinton said, comparing the process to a "Greek drama" that must be allowed to play out: "Because I know from just what I'm hearing, that there's incredible pent-up desire, and I think that people want to feel like, 'OK, it's a catharsis, we're here, we did it and then everybody get behind Senator Obama.' That is what most people believe is the best way to go."
Most Hillary supporters, perhaps, but not "most people" at the convention. There, Barack Obama has the edge, however narrow, and his supporters are a bit nervous about the "catharsis" getting out of hand. They don't worry that their man could actually lose the nomination but that the carefully scripted ad for their candidate (i.e., the convention) might be marred by, well, genuine human feelings.
Then we have the visibly annoyed former president, touring Africa for his foundation. When Kate Snow of ABC News asked him if Obama was ready to be president, the look on his face spoke volumes about how the once quick-to-forgive Clinton--the man who says Nelson Mandela taught him to resent no man--is now incapable of hiding his bitterness at being remembered by history as the ham in a Bush sandwich. "You could argue that no one's ready to be president," Bill Clinton said.
Who could not hear the groaning at the Michigan Avenue headquarters of the Obama for President campaign, carried by Chicago's wind to all corners of Obama Nation? Within minutes, the questions came in a torrent. Was Bill dissing Barack, or just feeling irritable after all that travel? Does he actually want Obama to lose so that Hillary can win in 2012? Will he make trouble in Denver?
Then Obama went for the ole blame-the-media tack: "There hasn't been controversy other than what you guys are projecting right now."
Okaaaay. And if you think what Clinton said to Kate Snow was a sufficient endorsement of your candidacy, you're Obambi after all, set up to be rolled repeatedly as president. More likely, both camps knew immediately after the Snow interview that they had repair work to do.
After the hubbub, the two sides worked out a hasty compromise whereby Hillary Clinton will speak Tuesday night and Bill Clinton Wednesday night. Two nights out of four featuring the Clintons is not what Obama had in mind for his convention, but he'll have to live with it.
Hillary will likely not sign the document that is necessary under party rules for her name to be placed in nomination. The Obama forces aren't dumb enough to permit it, and Hillary, unlike Bill, has to work with these people after the election if Obama wins. But the rules do allow for all delegates to vote for whomever they want. So Hillary's delegates will naturally vote for their candidate even if there are no nominating and seconding speeches for her. The Obama folks also have to figure out how to work Ted Kennedy into the schedule. That will be a moving moment but a bit too liberal for launching Obama into the fall campaign.
The dustup over the Clintons will get resolved, but it's a harbinger of drama to come. Bill Clinton is still sore. And Barack Obama hasn't quite figured out yet that the men who have been president is a tiny club, and Clinton is the only one whose advice is likely to prove useful. (Jimmy Carter is a prickly pacifist, George H.W. Bush is so out of the action that he didn't even know Obama had been saying nice things about his presidency when I asked him about it last month, and President Bush has little reliable to tell him).
The best outcome for Democrats would be for a President Obama to send Bill Clinton to the Middle East next year as his special envoy. Then all will be forgiven on both sides.
As for Hillary, she would have much more leverage over Obama if he wins and needs her help to get his agenda through the Senate. Should John McCain be vanquished, the Clinton-Obama dance will keep us riveted for years to come.