Commentary Magazine


Teacher And Apprentice Revisited

In the December 2007 issue of the Atlantic, Mark Ambinder wrote a piece on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s relationship in the Senate. It was a dramatic read then, and in light of last night, it’s positively Shakespearean.

When Obama assumed his U.S. Senate seat in January 2005, he reached out to Hillary, looking for mentorship.

Clinton’s staff was collegial. Obama’s overture was viewed by some as genuflection to the party’s natural leader, its likely presidential nominee; Obama himself was thought of as a possible apprentice and, perhaps one day, an heir. Clinton’s own decision to run for president had a whiff of destiny about it-she’d been preparing for years, had served four years as a senator, and had developed a nuanced political strategy. Some of her top advisers exuded a sense of entitlement: Clinton deserved to be president; it was her turn. They did not perceive any threat until it was almost too late.

An agreeable understanding was supposedly in place between the Hillary and Obama camps. Hillary would show Obama how to deal with the press, for whom to do favors, etc, and in return Obama would observe the sense of “destiny” in a 2008 Hillary campaign for President.

But something changed-and fairly rapidly. Obama diverged from the Clinton path and decided to challenge the former first lady for the presidency.

Or did nothing change on Obama’s end? Judging from Hilllary’s subsequent campaign, it’s plausible that she read the situation drastically wrong from the beginning. Perhaps the understanding was one-sided from the start.

The Ambinder piece also gets credit for this telling glimpse of Michelle Obama, then barely thought of as more than a smart, stylish lady:

On November 8, the day after Democrats took control of Congress, Obama, his wife, and his brain trust crowded into a fourth-floor conference room in the brick building in Chicago’s Loop that houses Axelrod’s consulting firm. “I want you to show me how you’re going to do this,” Michelle Obama said, according to an aide. “You need to show me that this is not going to be a bulls**t fly-by-night campaign.”

He showed her. And her.