Not since the feud between Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter tore the Democratic Party apart more than 30 years ago have two panjandrums of the party loathed each other quite as much as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
And yet this week, television viewers will be treated to a remarkable spectacle at the Democratic National Convention: Clinton will stand before a cheering throng of delegates on Thursday night and deliver a primetime speech nominating Obama, a man he once dismissed as incompetent, as president of the United States.
The Clinton-Obama feud is the worst-kept secret in the Democratic Party. It traces back to the bruising 2008 primary campaign, when Obama’s surrogates lambasted Bill and Hillary for being “racists” and a Clinton aide said of Obama that he “embraces the politics of trash.” The animosity still stirs such deep emotions that a year ago Clinton held a secret meeting of friends and political advisers at his home in Chappaqua and urged his wife to challenge Obama for the party’s presidential nomination in 2012.
According to two people who attended the meeting, Hillary rejected her husband’s advice that she run against a sitting president of her own party. But that didn’t stop Bill Clinton from going on a rant about Obama.
“I’ve heard more from Bush, asking for my advice, than I’ve heard from Obama,” my sources quoted Clinton as saying. “I have no relationship with the president — none whatsoever. Obama doesn’t know how to be president. He doesn’t know how the world works. He’s incompetent. He’s an amateur!”
Why, then, is Clinton making a speech on behalf of a man for whom he has such little respect? And why is Obama putting his nomination in the hands of man he doesn’t trust?
My sources inside the Obama campaign tell me that the last thing Obama wanted to see was Clinton, one of the country’s greatest orators, standing at the podium of the Democratic convention and sucking all the air out of the place.
The president, First Lady Michelle Obama and their senior political adviser, Valerie Jarrett, all argued strenuously against offering Clinton a plum assignment at the convention. They wanted to relegate him to a minor, non-prime-time speaking role. However, Clinton, who is viewed as an iconic figure by the party faithful, refused to accept anything less than the all-important nominating speech and threatened to boycott the convention unless his demands were met.
The decisive vote in the matter, according to my sources, was cast by David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist, who argued that the Obamas needed Clinton far more than Clinton needed them. Axelrod had long been aware that things were not going as well for Obama as the mainstream media reported. On the eve of the party’s presidential convention, Democrats had outspent Republicans 4 to 1 and had poured more than $200 million into negative commercials against Mitt Romney, and yet polls showed the race to be a dead heat, with Romney beginning to pull ahead in some critical swing states.