Hillary and Barack: a love story
No doubt there will be swooning all round when President Barack Obama descends upon Australia next month for his first official visit “Down Under” since coming to office just over a year ago.
While the precise details of his itinerary are understandably a closely guarded secret there can be no such mystery as to what the reaction of much of the local media will be.
Breathless comparisons with the charismatic US leader and his young family to the photogenic heyday of Camelot are sure to be exceeded only by gushing commentary of his wife, Michelle Obama. And given our sunny climes are more accommodating of sleeveless gowns than chilly Washington DC, fashion observers might just be rewarded with a glimpse of the First Lady baring those famed biceps.
Throw in a rousing speech or two from the man himself (surely a distinguished orator such as Obama will be able to do a little better than “man of steel”) and it seems we’re destined to be collectively seduced by Obamania.
Yet I can’t help but think what could have been. What if Obama left his family at home and was joined on the trip by the other significant woman in his life? You know, the one he isn’t married to.
No, I’m not suggesting the US president is following in the tradition of some of his predecessors in cheating on his wife. All evidence would suggest his picture-perfect domestic relations remain blissfully intact. I don’t doubt for a moment he’s leaving the sleazy behaviour to his one-time would-be running mate, John Edwards.
Yet there is another woman. And it’s Hillary Clinton. Once Obama’s fiercest rival, now his loyal secretary of state.
As half of one of the most well-documented marriages on the planet, we all know Clinton has long been spoken for. So given she’s with Bill and he’s with Michelle, it’s not surprising Hillary and Barack: A Love Story is a largely untold tale.
Unconventional, combative, and – I hasten to clarify – strictly platonic, it’s a partnership with an intensity to rival the most overwrought of paperback romances. Like all star-crossed lovers before them, theirs was a relationship initially founded in mutual respect and admiration until circumstances saw that fondness replaced by less benevolent emotions.
Indeed in the eyes of most observers, Obama and Clinton will always be foes. And not without reason. It’s not that long since the pair attempted to annihilate one another in the notoriously drawn-out battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.
It was a contest as historic as it was bitter. The eloquent, dynamic young senator destined to become America’s first black president versus the fiercely intelligent, tenacious senator destined to become America’s first female president.
Given we all know how it turned out, it’s often forgotten how close Clinton came to making history of her own. More importantly, she played a critical – and largely unacknowledged role – in shaping the candidate Obama would ultimately become.
For all his inherent talent and ambition, it was his exhaustive battle against the former first lady that saw Obama become a vastly more disciplined and focused contender.
In the recently released book Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin recount the behind-the-scenes antics of the 2008 presidential campaign.
With its larger than life characters and unforeseen plot twists (no matter you already know how this particular story ends), it’s this summer’s definitive blockbuster.
As political reporters themselves, Heilemann and Halperin have the good grace to concede the American media gave Obama a virtually unprecedented free ride during his ascent. Clinton, meanwhile, was subjected to a level of scrutiny few of her peers would be capable of withstanding.
By October 2007, she was still considered the frontrunner when she attended a primary debate in Philadelphia. What ensued was a remarkable display of bullying – with Edwards at the helm – as her six fellow Democratic presidential candidates joined forces in attacking her. More than half of the questions asked of the seven participants were directed solely at Clinton. Only on five occasions did a candidate challenge another rival. And when questions were put to Obama they included benign queries as to what costume he was planning to wear for Halloween. Not even the most ardent admirers of Obama, nor the most strident of Clinton’s critics, could deny the double standards at play.
But Clinton knew she could ill avoid to complain. To voice her frustration would have been dismissed as shrill and self-pitying. By early 2008, Clinton was facing inevitable defeat. Obama was no longer just a fellow candidate hustling for the nomination – he was a rock star; the darling of the party’s establishment; and the personal favourite of the almighty Kennedy clan. Yet even with Clinton effectively slain, she was never far from Obama’s thoughts. While less forgiving heads ultimately prevailed, it was Obama who found it hard to think of anyone more equipped to serve as his VP.
And when a gun-toting, beauty-queen governor from Alaska unexpectedly burst onto the national stage and stole the limelight for several weeks, Obama suspected Clinton was the only person who could effectively puncture the Sarah Palin fairytale.
It’s telling that Game Change devotes its final chapter to a particular twosome. It’s not, as might be expected, Obama opening a bottle of champagne with Michelle to toast his historic success in winning the White House. Nor is it a picture of a still-seething Hillary and Bill Clinton plotting their revenge in 2012. Neither failed Republican nominee John McCain or Palin manage to squeeze in a parting shot in the book’s closing pages.
Instead the last words go to Obama and Clinton, when they meet to discuss her becoming secretary of state. After months of hostility, it’s a poignant exchange in which they let down their respective guards for the first time.
With the divisive contest behind them, candour and a shared sense of commitment prevails. While Obama finally admits he needs Clinton by his side, she confesses her personal baggage can be a liability; an admission she had long resisted.
We all know there’s no happily ever after though. It’s not that kind of story. But in its own unique fashion, it is a love story, just the same.
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