Sen. Hillary Clinton ended her campaign for president Saturday with a rousing farewell to thousands of supporters and an emotional and unequivocal call for them to get behind Sen. Barack Obama, who defeated her for the Democratic nomination.
For 28 minutes, standing on a stage in the National Building Museum, Clinton spoke not only about the importance of electing Obama, but also the extent to which her campaign was a milestone for women seeking to become president.
She urged women who had followed her campaign not to take the wrong lesson from her loss.
“You can be so proud that, from now on, it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the president of the United States,” she said. “To those who are disappointed that we couldn't go all of the way, especially the young people who put so much into this campaign, it would break my heart if, in falling short of my goal, I in any way discouraged any of you from pursuing yours.”
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At that point the cheers, mostly from women, swelled so loud that Clinton's remaining words could not be heard.
Clinton first mentioned Obama seven minutes into her speech. But when she did, she swept away any doubt – created by her speech on Tuesday night, after he won the nomination – that she had any hesitancy about endorsing him or about his qualifications to be president.
“The way to continue our fight now, to accomplish the goals for which we stand, is to take our energy, our passion, our strength and do all we can to help elect Barack Obama the next president of the United States,” Clinton said, her voice echoing across the stone walls of the building. “Today, as I suspend my campaign, I congratulate him on the victory he has won and the extraordinary race he has run. I endorse him and throw my full support behind him.”
It was a dramatic – and at times theatrical – end to a candidacy that transfixed the country. Many of her supporters watched, some crying.
“I ask all of you to join me in working as hard for Barack Obama as you have for me,” Clinton said. “I have served in the Senate with him for four years. I have been in this campaign with him for 16 months. I have stood on the stage and gone toe-to-toe with him in 22 debates. I've had a front-row seat to his candidacy, and I have seen his strength and determination, his grace and his grit.”
“I want to take all our energy and all our strength and do all we can to help elect Barack Obama as our next president of the United States.”
Most in the crowd roared their approval when Clinton mentioned Obama's name, though there were boos and jeers from the upper levels of the three-tiered room. Several of her supporters tried to drown out those boos by clapping louder.
Throughout the campaign, Clinton steered away from presenting her candidacy in historic terms or in the context of the feminist movement. But not on Saturday. The theme was emphasized almost from the start of the speech to the emotional parting tableau where she raised the hands of her daughter, Chelsea, and her mother, Dorothy Rodham.
“Now, think how much progress we've already made,” she said. “When we first started, people everywhere asked the same questions. Could a woman really serve as commander in chief? Well, I think we answered that one. Could an African American really be our president? And Senator Obama has answered that one.”
Clinton appeared as relaxed and expansive as she has been at any point on the campaign trail. In talking about all the reasons she thought Democrats should rally around Obama, she even lapsed into a preacher's cadence, ending each refrain with “and that's why we need to elect Barack Obama our president.”
She even adopted Obama's campaign theme, grinning broadly as she said: “It is this belief, this optimism that Senator Obama and I share and that has inspired so many millions of our supporters to make their voices heard. So today I am standing with Sen. Obama to say: ‘Yes, we can!'”
Yet the most intense and passionate moments of the speech came when Clinton was talking about breaking barriers and the historic role that she and Obama have played in a contest that was a competition between an African American and a woman.
“Together, Senator Obama and I achieved milestones essential to our progress as a nation, part of our perpetual duty to form a more perfect union,” she said. “Now, on a personal note, when I was asked what it means to be a woman running for president, I always gave the same answer, that I was proud to be running as a woman, but I was running because I thought I'd be the best president.
“But I am a woman 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 respects and embraces the potential of every last one of us. I ran as a daughter who benefited from opportunities my mother never dreamed of. I ran as a mother who worries about my daughter's future and a mother who wants to leave all children brighter tomorrows.”
Obama, responding to Clinton's speech, paid particular tribute to that message in a statement thanking her for her support.
“I honor her today for the valiant and historic campaign she has run,” he said. “She shattered barriers on behalf of my daughters and women everywhere, who now know that there are no limits to their dreams.
“Our party and our country are stronger because of the work she has done throughout her life, and I'm a better candidate for having had the privilege of competing with her in this campaign.”
Hilary Deutsch, 43, brought her two boys, ages 9 and 12, to see what she called a piece of American history. A strong supporter of Clinton from the start, Deutsch volunteered for the campaign from time to time but said she grew frustrated that Obama was running a better race.
“I'm very disappointed. It is historic, a woman getting so close,” said Deutsch, a pediatrician who lives near Washington. “You have to wonder what happened. Obviously, she didn't foresee the force of Obama.”
A few feet from where Clinton spoke, Seth Goldstein stood with his 12-year-old daughter, Chloe. After volunteering for Clinton in seven states, Goldstein said he wanted his daughter to see what he called a graceful departure.
“She is leaving on her own terms,” said Goldstein, 46. “She had a tremendous campaign. I'm sad she's leaving, but I think she'd make an excellent vice president.”
On Saturday, there seemed to be far less anger at Obama than a week ago at the Democratic Party's rules and bylaws committee meeting, which effectively closed the door on Clinton's last best chance of winning the nomination.