Soon after he wrapped up the Democratic nomination in June, Sen. Barack Obama invited some of Sen. Hillary Clinton's key financial supporters—"bundlers" in the trade—to a private cocktail party and dinner in Washington. These were the more practical types, many of them women, who loved Hillary but the Democratic Party even more. They felt the need to give face-to-face advice to their new champion. One of them, speaking to me on condition of anonymity, said she pleaded with the senator to spend quality time with a wounded and therefore potentially disruptive Bill Clinton. "I told Barack, 'Have dinner. Clear the air. Win him over'." Obama didn't seem eager, but he did make a brief call a month later. The bundler pressed him to do more. "Barack told me it was hard to find the time, and I said, 'You'd better!' " Last week Obama called a second time, and the result was a deal for Clinton to speak at the convention in Denver. Still, there are no plans for them to sit down alone.
Everyone knows there is bad blood between the Obamas and the Clintons. But politics is the art of turning the sanguinary into the sanguine. Obama could use the Clintons' help, even if he is reluctant to admit it, and the Clintons need to cheerfully join the team (or do a good job of faking it) if they do not want to be dismissed as whiners—or blamed as Machiavellian backstabbers if he loses. And yet a four-way alliance (Michelle Obama is a key player, too) has proved difficult to construct. The two couples, from opposite ends of the baby boom, have behaved like reluctant participants at their first middle-school dance. Negotiations over the Clintons' role at the convention involve no fewer than 12 staffers and exude the labored air of Middle East peace talks.
With a Senate job and a political future to protect, Hillary is so far the more committed of the Clintons. Since June she's appeared onstage with the senator and now, having settled on a theme—pay equity for women—she is campaigning for him in states where she did well in the primaries. At the same time, however, she has quietly continued to push for the convention to include a roll call of her delegate support. She says such a state-by-state count—a reminder of just how close she had in fact come to winning the nomination—would be a welcome "catharsis" for the party. Despite the disagreement, the Obama side has agreed to give her a prominent, prime-time role in Denver.
The former president is a tougher case. He seems more King Lear than keynote speaker. He seethes over the way the Obama campaign and the media portrayed him in the primaries. His rage erupted during a trip to Africa intended to show that he was now devoting his life to the charitable work of his foundation. "I am not a racist," a red-faced Clinton declared to ABC. "I never made a racist comment." As for Obama's readiness to be president—a key line of attack from Sen. John McCain—Clinton was able to muster this: "You can argue that nobody is ready to be president."
Some Obama advisers find Clinton a divisive and insufferable hypocrite who is merely yesterday's news. Yet he and FDR were the only modern Democrats to win back-to-back elections, and there is no doubt that a fired-up and ready-to-go Bubba would be a formidable salesman for Obama's cause.
To see Bill now is to see a melancholy political animal: still brilliant, but clouded by his own resentments. At the Aspen Institute Ideas Conference recently, he held forth effortlessly on ethanol and electricity grids, education and rural poverty. A tentful of academics, business leaders, journos and, yes, bundlers, sat in rapt silence. I knew what they were thinking: the guy is flawed (as are we all), but what a once-in-a-generation talent. Obama sure could use him.