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Obama, Clinton Call for ‘Unity’

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/obama-clinton5.jpgHillary Clinton and Barack Obama (AP)

UNITY, N.H. — Minutes after a media shuttle—otherwise known as a yellow school bus—left the staging era at a NASCAR track in Claremont, N.H., a couple of local New Hampshire journalists began to speak to one another. It was 9:00 in the morning— hours on hours away from when the joint campaign event that would bring together two once bitter enemies— the presumed Democratic nominee for president Sen. Barack Obama, and his one-time rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton–in a town called Unity.

“You ever heard of Unity?” said the male journalist as the bus began to transverse the crumbling, rocky roads between the speedway and the elementary school, where the event was to take place.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“No,” his female counterpart said. “I’ve never heard of it. And neither has MapQuest.”

You’d have to left your schooling to wolves to not “get” the symbolism of the event. These two people were, after all, avatars of a fractured party. They had spent months slugging it out, to the detriment, some would say, of their party’s primary goal of retaking the White House in November.

Here, in this town of 1,700 people, where the primary voters had cast their votes equally for the two candidates during that long ago night in early January, the two were supposed to officially begin the reconciliation process. They had to prepare to meet an opposition party dealing with the legacy of one of the most unpopular presidents in American history — but had bickered away any real forward momentum they could have gotten while the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, transformed himself into the eco-friendy, safe choice for Americans.

What better way to show a family coming back together than here? If the Americans and Russians could find merriment with one another at Yalta, Clinton and Obama — and, by proxy, their supporters–could toast one another and move forward in support of one another in a town called Unity.

In truth, the reconciliation project had begun in earnest not long after Clinton stepped away from the race earlier this month. Thursday night, the two had held a joint-fund-raiser; and a week before, Clinton had a conference call with several supporters. This included a number of of her “HillRaisers”– who had each helped generate at least $100,000 for her campaign. Needless to say, the call did not include Norman Hsu, whose high profile as a former HillRaiser revealed the fact that he had been a 15-year fugitive on investment fraud charges.

According to former HillRaiser and New York attorney Bal Das, 39, Clinton stayed uber-conciliatory. She thanked everyone for the effort, spoke about the historic effort on both sides and spent a large amount of time talking about the need for restoring reconciliation, about standing solidly behind Obama and the Democratic Party. According to Das, she stressed the urgency of the moment, and made no mention whatsoever of any vice-presidential ambitions she might or might not have.

“I can speak about a fair number of people who have been strong supporters of Hillary,” Das said in a phone interview earlier this week. “Her campaign was a very strong one, and, in the way she handled the campaign process and in the aftermath, shows, in volumes, the leadership she would have brought to bear to the White House. That said, the way she has moved us has not been about but’s, if’s and why’s — but towards coming together for the Democratic Party and get over the disappointment.

Thus the former rivals came to New Hampshire as a way of letting Obama re-walk the steps Clinton did during the primary. It was in this state, after all, that she trounced him after his upset win in the Iowa caucuses, that the real race for the presidency began. It was here that Clinton stepped down from her campaign as a pseudo-incumbent, running partly on the accomplishments of her time during her’ husband’s tenure in the Oval Office, and began running on her own turbine, with her own voice.

Now, with her support behind him, it was Obama’s turn to make that same walk of greater ascendancy–only now with his once-rival and fellow senator at his side, and not at his throat. They were no longer foes, but crusaders in the same cause. Now it’s Obama playing the role of Johnny Cash — the cool, sleek man who rose from nothing, speaking truth in ways truth have never been told before — to Clinton’s June Carter — the talented member of the Democratic Party’s last first-family who, if given some power to help steer him, could lift the Obama campaign to new heights.

So it was that they came here, to Unity, whose name and lovely setting, proved too much for either candidate to pass up. — no matter how logistically challenged it might be. In truth, it was nearly unbearable. Sitting outside the school beneath unrelenting heat, reporters like yours truly found themselves blinded by the afternoon sun and were forced to take drastic measures. Some worked with their sportcoats over their heads, creating a fabric cave under which to work. Others–including us–wrote underneath the press tables, our legs stretched into the grass. Drenched in sweat, people struggled beneath a midday sun as some 4,000 people waited for the speech.

Even some Obama supporters in town felt overwhelmed by the spectacle of the reporters and news trucks and photographers and live shots from CNN. Before the event, Gail Sloan, who used to summer in Unity and made it her permanent home when she retired from her work in the Connecticut Public Schools, said: “This town doesn’t like big. We like being rural and no one knowing where we are. We’ll be glad when we’re not the center of New Hampshire again.”

Despite the drastic discomfort of the scene, one could help feeling that it was, in many ways, a throwback to that earlier period in the election cycle before the primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire. Here we were, in a rural, semi-intimate audience, listening to people talk about the future of America, with the pastoral landscape all around, the outcome of the coming race yet to be decided. And, as with those early days, one found a mostly white crowd — a stark contrast to Obama’s recent visit to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit — where some 20,000 mostly African-Americans, made it pretty clear who their candidate for president was.

And like those early days, one found people coming out for a variety of reasons — some of which had little to do with the candidate speaking. Some in the crowd waved Clinton campaign signs. One woman, who stood near the edge of the pen where the press had assembled to see the speech — would turn away from Obama, when he spoke, covering her ears with cotton. And then there was Jessey Johnson Jr., an actual resident of Unity, standing with his three boys before the event. Johnson made it clear he was a Republican voting for John McCain.

“My dad didn’t want to come,” his son Jesse, the third, age 10 said. “We made him.”

Why did they want to come?

“I could see Hillary,” Jesse’s twin brother, Jacob, said, raising his arms into the sky.

“Yeah!” Jesse said.

“I wanted to see Obama,” said Jed, the twins’ six-year-old younger brother.

Looking over to their father, now with a slight grimace, I asked him if this at all rankled him.

“A little bit,” he said.

When the two former rivals finally emerged — after the customary round of introductions by state and local officials, including the town’s Republican honorary mayor — they arrived as a literal matching. Clinton wore a light-blue pant suit, the same color of Obama’s tie. My god, one felt, were they headed to the prom?

Sadly, no. Instead they were determined to present a united front. Having traveled from Washington to Manchester on the same flight and to Unity on the same bus, they were, to the relief of the elders in the Democratic Party, sharing the stage with good feelings toward one another and what Obama deemed “an unstoppable force for change.”

“We have gone toe-to-toe in this primary,” Clinton told the receptive crowd, “but today, and from this day forward, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder.”

Maybe they will. Maybe they will leave this town to its natural state of stillness, leading the photographers and sweating journalists to one place and then another. Perhaps the two will make their force official and run on the same ticket, becoming the supposed dream ticket that many in the party have craved. But that is in the future — today they have Unity.

As writers, we naturally look for telling signs to capture a moment, and, as luck had it, we found one in the form of a late-afternoon shower. After traveling from the event to a field outside the NASCAR track, where I had begun my day, I found myself writing in the back of my car during a sudden dark, heavy downfall — a relief from the afternoon sun. It seemed a simple reminder of what comes next after the speeches have been given, the endorsement made–a simple symbol of the turbulent national campaign to come.

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