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In Speech, Clinton Tries to Unite Party Behind Obama

August 26, 2008 at 11:10 PM EST
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As the Democrats wrap up day two of their convention in Denver, analysts and historians review the night's key moments, in particular Sen. Hillary Clinton's speech in support of Sen. Barack Obama.
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JIM LEHRER: And now we’re going to get some closing thoughts here on this second night, Hillary Clinton night, at the Democratic convention here in Denver.

Mark Shields and David Brooks are still with me. And in our other studio are our convention historian team of Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton-Smith, and Peniel Joseph. And down on the floor is Gwen Ifill.

First, a quick reaction from you, Mark and David, to what just happened.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Jim, Hillary Clinton did everything that could have been asked of her by the Obama people, by the Democratic Party.

She was a character witness for him. She drew the differences. She did it with humor. She did it factually. She never went over-the-top. She spoke to her own people.

There was nobody who’s a party to this whole event who could have been disappointed by what she said. I mean, she left nobody out.

The only criticism I had was she stepped on, I thought, one of her great lines, which was, “My mother was born before a woman could vote, but in this election my daughter voted — got to vote for her mother for president.”

JIM LEHRER: She stepped on it because there was so much applause and cheers at the time, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: There was so much applause. But I thought she drew the McCain-Bush connection. She did it well. There was no meanness to it. And she did it with humor, and she did it factually.

JIM LEHRER: David?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I agree. I thought it was a very good speech filled with good formulations, original things.

I thought the “keep going” thing was a very effective thing at the end. It had rhythms of the “dream will never die” passage from Teddy Roosevelt. “We didn’t get there this time, but keep going, keep going.”

For me, the highlight of the speech, which was to address the problem of unity in the party, was when she said, “Were you in this for me?” She had talked about the Marine who was injured. She talked about the woman with cancer.

And then she asked, really, her followers and said, “Were you in this for me? Or are you in this for them?” And there’s no way to answer that question and say, “I was in it for Hillary.”

And that was a beautiful way, I thought, to unify the party. That was very well-done.

JIM LEHRER: And you think it will go out of this, this message will go — to go out into the country, not just in this hall?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, that’s the question. I mean, I think she laid the groundwork, she made the case for Barack Obama. He’s got to go before the jury, and the jury isn’t just in this room.

The jury is — to repeat — in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, 18 battleground states, and a lot of other neighborhoods and families around the country.

But she certainly — she certainly was a character witness. She gave him an introduction and a sendoff that it’s up to him to deliver.

Paying tribute, moving forward

JIM LEHRER: Peniel Joseph, how did you -- how did it sound and look to you?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Well, for decades, the Democratic Party has suffered from the perception that it is the party of special interests.

For the second straight night, we see a party that's trying to create a perception that it's actually the party of universal interest, but universal interest in Technicolor. So I think that it's been very effective in trying to embrace themes of patriotism and, really, small-d American democracy.

JIM LEHRER: In a word, what did you think of Hillary Clinton's speech?

PENIEL JOSEPH: I thought it was a remarkable speech. I think in a way some critics will say that she should have talked about Obama even more.

But given the fact that she got 18 million votes, I think the self-referential nature of the speech was justified to an extent.

At the same time, she tried to pass the torch to Obama and really tell her supporters that, if they want a different kind of America for themselves and their children, they should support Senator Obama's candidacy.

JIM LEHRER: Richard Norton-Smith, your reaction, sir?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Well, I think, in a curious sort of war, she may have just saved the McCain campaign some ad dollars, because it's awfully difficult to imagine them continuing as of tomorrow morning to run those ads that suggest that Senator Clinton is, in fact, a latent McCain supporter.

I think Eleanor Roosevelt would have been proud.

JIM LEHRER: Eleanor Roosevelt would have been proud?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think so.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, I think it's probably the best written and best delivered speech I've heard her give.

But I think you can criticize it on one ground, an Obama supporter might, and that is this is a dead-close election right now. Barack Obama, for Democrats who want to see him elected, is going to need all the help he can.

She said some pretty brutal things about Barack Obama and his equipment to be -- his experience to be president that are being aired in those McCain commercials.

And so what she said for Obama tonight -- you know, he'll bring health care, he'll do all these wonderful things -- it was great, but it was pretty generic. She could have said those things about Chris Dodd, if he had been nominated.

I think what it really needed more, if it was going to be really a huge help to Obama, would be, "I did say certain things early in the campaign, but because of what Obama has done in this campaign, I've seen him grow. I've come to question what I said against him. I have a new view that's a lot more positive."

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Richard, that -- do you agree with Michael that she could have said more about, "Hey, wait a minute, I really didn't mean it," or something like that, or maybe, "I've been converted," something to acknowledge that she has put the rap on Obama before?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You know, I think that's, frankly, implicit. You know, we've all been caught up in this media melodrama for weeks. You know, basically, will she or won't she? And tonight she answered that question I think pretty emphatically, with some poignancy and, I suspect, considerable persuasiveness.

But, remember, there are still a lot of raw feelings among many of those delegates on the floor tonight. There's a credibility test that this speech had to pass among some of her most dedicated followers.

And I think, if she'd spent much of that speech, in effect, taking back some of the things she'd said rather than arguing the broad case -- I agree with Michael, it was a broad, somewhat generic case -- but that case certainly more than passed the threshold that had been raised over these last few weeks.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Let's go to Gwen on the floor.

Gwen, what was it like?

Party leaders all in the same house

GWEN IFILL: Well, you were talking about unity earlier and how that was the sign of the day. Well, the signs that turn from Obama to unity, they kept passing them out throughout the speech. They didn't get them all out right away.

First, it was a sea of Hillary signs. And then it was almost like a transition to "remember who the nominee is."

And what everyone was worried about was whether Hillary Clinton would actually bring a full-throated support, and she did. She brought a very full-throated support, rapt attention, every square inch of this floor filled. They had to close the hall so people couldn't get in. And people who left couldn't get back in.

But what they really wanted to do -- people were gazing up at her as if they were saying, "Please tell me it's all right." It's fair to say that half the people in this room supported Hillary Clinton and half of them supported Barack Obama.

And having Hillary Clinton, and Bill Clinton, and Michelle Obama, and Joe Biden in the same room, watching approvingly, I think went a long way to healing some of those hurt feelings.

There's still some debate among some folks who are not happy, who think everything's a conspiracy designed to make Hillary Clinton look bad. But generally, if the goal tonight was for the Democrats to try the leave everyone in this room with a sense that they were on the same page, that's what the Hillary Clinton speech did.

And that's certainly how it was received here on the floor, with some people looking teary and hugging each other.

JIM LEHRER: Gwen, let me ask you this. At the very beginning, when Hillary Clinton was introduced, and there was a big -- everybody had a Hillary -- not everybody, but most everybody had a Hillary sign, and she kept trying to talk, and the applause and the cheering continued, was there a possibility that this thing was going to -- that she wasn't going to be able to stop this for a while? Was there any feeling that, "Oh-oh, oh-oh"?

GWEN IFILL: It didn't feel that way in the hall.

JIM LEHRER: Is that right?

GWEN IFILL: You know, I think that part of what was happening here is everybody was watching their clocks. And they knew that, as she went past 11 p.m. Eastern time, that maybe -- I don't think the networks were ever going to turn away, but there was some concern that they might lose audience.

So she may have been rushing a little bit through her speech today in much the way that Michelle Obama was tonight so they could get the biggest audience possible.

This is what the Obama people have described this convention as, their opportunity to get eyeballs, to hear from as many -- to get to as many people in as unfiltered a way they can manage as possible. And so they wanted Hillary Clinton to talk; they wanted her to be applauded.

But it was interesting. The crowd got a little quieter when she talked about why she had run for president. And then the relief kicked in when she started talking about why he had run for president and why they should all support him now. There were almost cheers of relief.

JIM LEHRER: I see. Some people were holding their breath, then?

GWEN IFILL: Maybe we were.

JIM LEHRER: "She's still running," right?

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Was Clinton's support enough?

JIM LEHRER: Well, Peniel, how did that seem to you, that when -- you hear what the others said, that, particularly Michael, that she could have done more to support Obama and to distance herself from some of her earlier criticisms of him. Did you feel that way?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, certainly, I think Michael makes a very good point, the fact that she said he had no experience going to campaign. She said he wasn't ready for that 3 a.m. call.

It certainly would have been very good if the speech included some refutations, a change of heart, say that she's born-again, she's found religion and saying that, well, Obama really is the man.

But given the fact that the Clintons are power-brokers in the Democratic Party, I think it's a deft speech that wants to keep the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party as leverage for even if there is an Obama presidency and, at the same time, doesn't want to be accused of really undermining Senator Obama's candidacy.

Because she knows that, if there are Clinton fingerprints on an Obama loss in November, her chances in 2012 suffer, and not just with the African-American community, but with many of these young voters and, really, millions of Democrats who the Obama campaign has energized.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, put your historian hat on now. Put this, what happened tonight, in some kind of historical context. In terms of conventions, past conventions, dynamics that were alive in the room, and what happened?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, the low bar -- perhaps the low part of the scale, 1976, after Gerald Ford gave a great acceptance speech, he called Governor Reagan, his opponent who had been defeated, to come down onto the podium and said, "Ron, could you join us and make a speech?"

And Ford was hoping and expecting that Reagan would give a speech saying, "We've just nominated Jerry Ford. He must be elected." Instead, Reagan gave this brilliant speech saying -- quoting McCarthy, saying, "There must be no substitute for victory."

The problem with the speech was, A, he never mentioned Gerald Ford's name; B, the speech was so great that a lot of the delegates walked out of that hall saying, "We nominated the wrong man."

That's not going to happen tonight. But the problem is, tomorrow morning, John McCain is going to air a commercial quoting Hillary Clinton saying that, "I have a lifetime of experience. John McCain does. All Barack Obama has is a speech he gave in 2002."

Without saying something tonight that refutes that kind of thing, it makes it harder for Barack Obama to go against that kind of thing.

JIM LEHRER: Richard, do you have a favorite or un-favorite runner-up evening story that you could pull out for us?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, well, go back to Mrs. Roosevelt, 1940. The Democratic convention had re-nominated her husband for an unprecedented third term, but they didn't want to nominate his choice for vice president, Henry Wallace of Iowa, a kind of loopy guy who had been a very successful secretary of agriculture, but was something of a political oddball.

In any event, the president sent his best surrogate to the convention. Mrs. Roosevelt stepped before that convention, said, "This was no ordinary time."

It wasn't a great speech, if you read the speech now. The power of the speech was in the symbolism, that she was there and that she was delivering that message.

And I think, while I have the utmost respect for the opinion of my colleagues, I think they may be underestimating the power of symbolism in this very highly charged political environment.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

I have a question for you, Gwen. You're still there, are you not?

GWEN IFILL: I'm here.

Party is ready for a big win

JIM LEHRER: What about the reaction to Joe Biden on the floor, based on your reporting, versus, "Hey, Obama didn't choose Hillary Clinton. He chose Joe Biden." What were you picking up on that tonight?

GWEN IFILL: You know, I think -- this room is the very definition of the Democratic Party insiders, all in one place. And as Hillary Clinton pointed out in her speech tonight, Democratic Party insiders really want to win.

And they all know Joe Biden; Joe Biden is reassuring to them. He is a well-known figure, if not outside of this room yet, certainly within this room. It was a reassuring thing.

Barack Obama is so brand-new. Four years ago, he was giving that same keynote speech that Mark Warner gave tonight to much greater effect, it should be said. And so as a result, there are a lot of people, especially those who supported Hillary Clinton, who are still getting their arms around who Barack Obama is. They know who Joe Biden is.

The idea that Hillary Clinton should be the vice presidential nominee seemed to fade steadily over the weeks, especially after she said she didn't want to do it, after he said that he probably wasn't going to include her.

And people seemed to, actually, now that you mention it, kind of surprisingly, accept that, once it was a done deal. Once again, Democrats want to win and they see a chance.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Finally, in a word, Mark, David -- David, a good night for the Democrats?

DAVID BROOKS: I think so. I thought it got off to quite a slow start, but Hillary Clinton had a good night. I do think she could have -- I agree with Michael -- she could have praised Obama more specifically.

But she's an organization candidate, and she explained why the Democratic Party should win, not necessarily Barack Obama, but the Democratic Party. And I thought her speech redeemed what had been a pretty mediocre night up to that point.

MARK SHIELDS: I thought she did very, very well. He began his career fighting for workers displaced by the global economy. He built his campaign on the fundamental belief that change in this country must start from the ground up, not the top down. He knows government must be about "we the people," not "we the favored few."

I mean, she was sounding the themes of his campaign and endorsing his candidacy. I think that was effective, and I think it was strong.

JIM LEHRER: And a good night for the Democrats?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it was a good night for -- a better night than last night, and tomorrow night had better be better.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Well, thank you, one and all.

And that ends our coverage of this second night of the Democratic National Convention here in Denver. We will be back tomorrow night, first at our regular NewsHour time, and then again here on most PBS stations at 8 p.m. Eastern time for our coverage of evening three of the convention itself.