Philadelphia—Claims to making history collided in 2008, when Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama. The potential first woman came up short against the first African American–who ultimately became our first black president. There was an enervating tension at that Denver convention eight years ago, a hangover from a long and often bitter campaign–until the Democratic women’s advocacy group Emily’s List brought Clinton and Michelle Obama together for a celebration.
They celebrated each other. “Over her career she has offered me, my daughters, and all of our daughters a different vision for what they could become and for that we are forever grateful for her work,” Obama said of Clinton, though she had at times been furious at the campaign’s racially tinged maneuvers. Clinton confided: “I know a little bit about how the White House works. If the president is not exactly on our side, call the first lady. And with Michelle Obama, we’re going to have someone to answer that phone.”
Eight years later here in Philadelphia, Democrats needed healing again, and Michelle Obama brought it. Quieting angry Bernie Sanders supporters (who had even booed Representative Elijah Cummings when he talked about his late father), Obama delivered an eyes-wide-open tribute to this country’s still unfinished evolution toward equality. “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves and I watch my daughters—two beautiful, intelligent, black young women—playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
Obama also gave unhappy Sanders supporters gracious advice about how to carry on in defeat. “When she didn’t win the nomination eight years ago, she didn’t get angry, or disillusioned. Hillary did not pack up and go home. Because as a true public servant, Hillary knows this is so much bigger than her desires or disappointments.” Amazingly, she echoed Clinton’s own concession speech, delivered to bitter, grieving supporters eight years ago, praising her as someone “who has the guts and the grace to keep coming back and putting those cracks in that highest and hardest glass ceiling.”
Thinking about the way these two women, once at odds, became friends and supporters made me feel better about what has so far been a divided and sometimes disappointing convention. At a reception honoring women leaders, sponsored by the Center for American Progress and Elle magazine, elation over Clinton’s impending nomination fought with anxiety over the potential for disruption by restive Sanders backers, despite the heroic work Sanders himself is putting in to try to stop it. “Why can’t she just have this moment?” a longtime Clinton supporter asked, near tears. As we left the reception to head to the convention arena, a monsoon of biblical enormity seemed to represent a cloudburst of hundreds of women’s frustration.
Obama reminded all of us to get over ourselves. “There were plenty of moments when Hillary could have decided this work was too hard. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life. When I think about the kind of president that I want for my girls, that’s what I want. And that’s why in this election, I’m with her!”
It’s going to be a week of testimony to Clinton’s political character, but she may have no better character witness than Michelle Obama.