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Exit Hillary

As Hillary Clinton's farewell event wound down here at the National Building Museum in Washington, she and Bill worked one last rope line, to one last blare of inanely upbeat pop music: "There's only one place left I wanna go... Who says you can't go back/who says you can't go home?" Hillary's die-hard backers were out in force: Sid Blumenthal, Lanny Davis, and Terry McAuliffe (who, long after the event was over, was still spinning away for French TV); plus a female-dominated crowd where you might see a middle-aged woman carrying a Joan Didion book, or a another in a stark black-and-white T-shirt reading "THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE."

Hillary's speech was the gracious, unequivocal endorsement that Obama supporters have been waiting for. Yes, the hard feelings still linger: Hearty boos pierced the cheers at her every mention of Obama's name. Another t-shirt in the crowd advised people to "vote present" in November, reviving an old Clinton dig at Obama. But Clinton wasn't channelling that energy today. Her speech seemed to strike the right notes, both for Democrats and for her own reputation. She devoted ample time to the larger Democratic cause, the importance of winning back the White House, and, above all, the need to rally behind the party's new nominee. (And in reminder that the Clinton project did not begin--nor will it end--with this campaign, she also gave a careful nod to her husband's two terms as president.)

The one surprise to my ears was Hillary's feminist tone.  "I am a woman," she noted, "and like millions of women I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious, and I want to build an America that embraces and respects the potential of every last one of us." Back when she was trying to convince voters she was "strong" enough to be president, she preferred to leave her gender implicit. But as the campaign wore on, and turned against her, Hillary defined strength by her determination not to quit, to fight through adversity, and, yes, to face down the torrent of alleged sexism thrown her way. (Somewhat confusingly, she also said, "Could a woman really serve as commander in chief? Well, I think we answered that one." Did we?) But every politician needs a base. Hers often seemed built largely on a carefully-cultivated Washington-insider machine. Now she is woman, and we can hear her roar.

Barack Obama wasn't here today--as Hillary spoke, he enjoyed a well-earned round of golf. But the two will soon be onstage together, smiling like nothing every happened. Bitter feelings die hard, though, and it's hard to imagine that Hillary and Obama will ever be true and trusting allies. Now comes the gamesmanship over his vice presidential choice, questions about her convention role, her $30 million campaign debt--and the fact that, in the most raw political calculus, Obama's failure in November or in the White House would be a vindication for Hillary.

So despite the warm words, today was probably not the end of the Clinton-Obama drama. It was just the beginning of a new chapter. Near the end of her speech, Hillary elegaically noted that "If we can blast 50 women into space, we will someday launch a woman into the White House." It's an admirable, and undoubtedly true, sentiment. Still, you can't help but wonder there's a 51st woman whom Obama might like to blast into space. For a few years, at least.

--Michael Crowley