After Bill Clinton delivered his electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention, many political observers concluded that the Clintons and Obamas had called a truce to their long-running feud. Under their armistice, Clinton agreed to make speeches and appear in TV commercials for Obama, acting like a booster rocket for the Democratic ticket in the remaining weeks of the campaign.
It was a pretty picture, but as I have learned from several sources inside the Clinton camp, it turned out to be a case of wishful thinking.
In fact, since the convention, Clinton and Obama have had a serious falling-out over two issues: the president’s preparation and lamentable performance in his debate with Mitt Romney, and the question of who should be assigned blame — Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — for the intelligence and security screw-up in Benghazi, Libya.
This new rift, which the Clintons and Obamas have managed to keep secret from the media, has poisoned their relations to such an extent that it could conceivably have an impact on the outcome of the presidential election.
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The latest quarrel began when Clinton heard that Obama was behaving so cocky about his first debate against Mitt Romney that he wasn’t taking his debate prep seriously. Out of concern, Clinton had an aide call the White House and say that the former president would be more than happy to give the current president some pointers and advice on how to get the best of Romney.
Clinton waited several days for a response, but none was forthcoming. According to my sources, the former president was dumbfounded that Obama had ignored his offer, and his hurt feelings quickly boiled over into anger.
“Bill thought that he and Obama were on friendly terms after the convention,” one source told me. “He couldn’t believe that the White House didn’t even extend him the courtesy of a return phone call. He concluded that Obama’s arrogance knows no bounds.”
The fact is, these two proud and egocentric men have a long and acrimonious history. Four years ago, after Obama’s South Carolina primary victory over Hillary Clinton, Bill called Obama’s campaign “a fairy tale.” Not to be outdone, Obama referred to the Clinton presidency as a “psychodrama.”
Later, after Obama won the presidency, he and Clinton held a joint press conference at the White House. Clinton promptly took over the podium, edging out Obama and prompting the new president to leave the stage altogether.
Given this history, it was not surprising that Obama was reluctant to give Clinton a starring role at the Democratic Convention. It was only after David Axelrod and other Obama campaign advisers argued that a Clinton speech was essential to a successful convention bounce that the president agreed to let Clinton deliver the prime-time nominating speech. Just as Obama feared, Clinton stole the show and made Obama look smaller by comparison.
In the past, Obama has grumbled that he doesn’t enjoy being “lectured to” by Clinton. Perhaps that’s why Obama has never once invited Bill and Hillary to the White House for an informal dinner.
Despite their mutual lack of trust, Clinton and Obama have managed to keep their personal feelings under control — up to now. But in the wake of the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Clinton is concerned that the White House and Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago are moving to dump political and legal blame for the Libya mess on the State Department and, by definition, on Hillary Clinton herself.
My sources tell me that Clinton is working on a strategy that will allow Hillary to avoid having Benghazi become a stain on her political fortunes should she decide to run for president in 2016.
Bill Clinton has even gone so far as to seek legal advice about Hillary’s liability in terms of cables and memos that might be subpoenaed by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which this week launched an investigation into the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The committee will also examine the apparent Obama administration cover-up that followed the Benghazi attack.
Finally, I’m told that Bill is playing with various doomsday scenarios, up to and including the idea that Hillary should consider resigning over the issue if the Obama team tries to use her as a scapegoat. That seems unlikely to happen. But if relations between Obama’s White House and Hillary’s State Department rupture publicly over the growing Benghazi scandal, that could damage the Democratic ticket and dim Obama’s chances for re-election.
Edward Klein, author of The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House, is a New York Times bestselling author of numerous books including The Truth About Hillary. He is the former foreign editor of Newsweek, former editor in chief of The New York Times Magazine, and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair.