From NBC's Ron Allen
SCRANTON, Penn. -- Maybe the reason Hillary Clinton popped up at the final presidential debate was because it was convenient to her New York home. Perhaps, as the joke goes, she was there just in case McCain or Obama couldn't make it. Or maybe -- just maybe -- it was because she's stepping up her efforts to help Barack Obama and Joe Biden win the White House.
With HRC - as we've come to call her - the question of motives often lurks not far from the surface, especially in the aftermath of her bruising and ultimately unsuccessful fight with Obama for the role she once saw as inevitable.
I recently had the chance to interview Clinton after a campaign event in Scranton, PA. As always, she was gracious, charming, and well prepared. The first thing she said, after a very welcoming "Hello Ron," was, "I love your wife's show." (My wife co-hosts a nationally-syndicated morning news program on public radio.)
The cynic in me muttered, "They've prepped her with a great way to disarm the interviewer." But my inner realist countered, "Come on, you're not so important that she needs a file on you. She probably really does listen to the show." After all, it does air in New York. As we chatted on, she made a few observations that only a listener would know, and I realized she was -- in fact -- being sincere.
I felt a bit awkward for thinking otherwise.
It's a familiar dilemma for anyone who's paid much heed to the illustrious political careers of the charming and powerful Clintons. Can you believe them? Or is it really all about them and whatever they're after?
I covered Hillary Clinton's primary campaign for the better part of four months, usually from very early in the morning to very late at night. Whatever their politics, her observers in the press corps had to admire her sheer will, determination, and command of the issues. She was present, without fail, every day.
Now, as Clinton campaigns for Barack Obama, the inevitable question arises: Has she really embraced her former foe? Or is she really just plotting for 2012?
Bill Clinton, no stranger to suspicions about his and his wife's motives, routinely jumps to Hillary's defense in his campaign speeches. He insists that his wife has campaigned harder than any defeated opponent ever has for the eventual nominee -- "more than all the runners-up combined," he says. (If Hillary has really held 50 events for Obama, as her husband claims, she's campaigning almost as hard for Obama as McCain is campaigning for himself.)
Listening to her speak before a crowd of several thousand in Scranton, one turn of phrase jumped out to veterans of her campaign. From Iowa to Puerto Rico, she often said that "it took a Clinton to clean up after the first President Bush, and it will take a Clinton to clean up after another one." In Pennsylvania, her pitch for Obama replaces the word Clinton with "Democrat." It's an example of how a politician can easily adjust for the political requirement of the moment, and it also -- to some -- suggests some insincerity. Same phrase, different occasion.
In my interview with Clinton, it was interesting to hear how some of her views about Obama have changed. During the primary, she questioned Obama's "association" with the now much-mentioned Bill Ayers, saying that the public needed to know the full extent of their relationship. Now, when asked if the Republicans have been crossing the line by adopting the same line of attack, she simply replied, "I think that anytime you get negative...it doesn't do anybody a service."
During their primary contest, Clinton claimed Obama would not be able to withstand a full-scale Republican attack. But now, she told me, "he can because circumstances have changed," referring to the economic crisis and voters' hunger for solutions over the attacks that might resonate in more stable times. But she later added a caveat that was hardly a full-throated vote of confidence for Obama's staying power. "Absent this economic crisis," she speculated. "You know... who knows?"
Even as Clinton predicts that Obama is closing the deal -- saying that "it's all falling into place" for the Democratic nominee –- she sometimes seems to describe his win as more inevitable than earned. "I hear all the time, people say, well ...I don't have any choice now, ... or you know, I'm convinced."
Don't have any choice now? Oh.
Here in northeast Pennsylvania, where her family has roots, Clinton's mission is to rally conservative Democrats, who supported her in big numbers but have been slow to embrace Obama. She says that her pitch to folks still not backing Obama is a warning. "You can't reward the Republicans," she insists to past supporters still flirting with the Republican ticket. "You've voted for them before for guns and abortion...But we're in trouble now."
(Cue Clinton's criticism of Obama for his infamous "bitter" comment, in which he lashed social conservativism to economic woes. How times have changed…)
Ultimately, Clinton's effort will be judged by how many of her supporters vote for McCain. It's possible that her efforts may in the end have little impact on the outcome of the race. And she recently said there's very little chance she'll run for president again, or be considered for the Supreme Court, a job rumored to interest her should Obama win.
The only thing certain: her fans, followers, skeptics and foes will continue to ask the question that Clinton famously pondered aloud during the most uncertain period of her tumultuous primary run: "What does Hillary want?"