A Hillraiser Not Yet Ready to Back Obama: Could She Be Flirting with McCain?

Susie Tompkins Buell was a proud Hillraiser, one of Hillary Clinton's most lavish financial backers -- raising at least $100,000 is required to earn the designation -- and one of the New York senator's closest friends and confidantes. A San Franciscan and cofounder of the Esprit clothing company, Susie Buell is married to philanthropist Mark Buell, an occasional golfing buddy of Bill's. The Buells grew so close to the Clintons that they slept in the Lincoln Bedroom during the Clinton years and Hillary threw them a surprise engagement party at the White House.

I interviewed both Susie and Mark in 2006 when I was writing Clinton in Exile, my book about Bill Clinton's post-presidency. Full of love and admiration for the Clintons, Susie was confident that she and Mark would visit the Clintons again, this time in a Hillary Clinton White House.

In an interview on Monday, Susie, who exudes warmth and New Age philosophy, sounded uncharacteristically disillusioned after watching her beloved Hillary get beat up and beaten in the long nomination battle.

Buell will not commit to support Obama; she has many reasons for her reticence and is not shy about sharing them

On the plane to Washington with Hillary on June 3rd, the night of the final primaries, when Obama clinched the nomination, Susie Buell was chatting with a person seated near her. Hillary had been in the back of the plane eating pizza. "What's up?" Hillary asked, stopping by Susie's seat. She repeated the conversation she had just had with her fellow passenger: "Oh, Hillary, the final straw for me was that none of the democratic leaders, including your opponent, could come to your defense after Father Pfleger's disgusting remarks, and it took John McCain [to denounce Pfleger]." Buell says that Hillary "just kind of rolled her eyes like, this is the way it is ... She kind of cocked her head and her eyebrows went up and she said, `What did you expect?' It's like she knew she was in the dirtiest game of her life and she didn't' expect anything more than that."

Obama's formal rebuke of his one-time friend -- "...I am deeply disappointed in Father Pfleger's divisive, backward-looking rhetoric, which doesn't reflect the country I see or the desire of people across America to come together in common cause" -- was not good enough for Susie Buell. "If Obama was such a uniter and he was so much about bring women together...[he would have said], 'I am so sorry to hear these words come [...] about a woman who has fought the most incredible [fight]." She charges Obama with "not coming out and defending Hillary [...] and speaking up for her when the gender bias was out of control, the way she would have done if there'd been racism. It just did nothing for many women's opinion of him."

Buell is angry too over what she sees as mistreatment of Bill Clinton by the Obama campaign. She calls the former president "a great plus to the campaign," and lambastes the Obama campaign for "really looking, searching for things that they could take out of context." She claims that Obama's people were just waiting for the former president to say something so they could pounce on it and "twist" it. The insinuations that Bill Clinton behaved like a racist infuriates her most of all. "For anybody to even think that Bill Clinton [...] has a racist hair on his body; he is the most inclusive person I've ever met."

And she remains angry at Michelle Obama whom she charges with being "disrespectful" to Hillary. "Obviously [Michelle's] going to have a good makeover; there's going to be a lot of work done on her to make her more palatable to the voters that are going to be the most important because I think she has a hard edge and I think they'll be working on that, to soften her, to make her more appealing." Buell was especially irritated by two remarks made by Michelle Obama: "She was asked if she would vote for Hillary if she was the nominee, she said, 'Well I'd have to think about it.' I think she needed to show more grace." Susie Buell also mentions the "rude" comment that Michelle made last August: "If you can't run your own house, you can't run the White House." (Buell sees it as obviously aimed at Hillary; Michelle denied at the time that it had anything to do with Hillary.)

Buell sees almost no chance that Obama will offer the vice presidency to Hillary, and she understands why he can't. Hillary would "upstage him," Buell contents, and he is all about "a new Washington, get rid of the old politics and bring in the new and he really can't choose Hillary." On the other hand, says Buell, "He's going back on everything else he said, so I don't know why he couldn't do that." Of Obama's move to the center, on Iraq and other issues, she complains, "It's so hypocritical to me because these are all the things he said he wasn't going to do and he blamed her ahead of time and said she would do that kind of thing. It's blatant and I'm not impressed." Buell also speculates on a third reason why Hillary cannot be VP: Michelle has "apparently put her foot down." She adds that she has heard but admits she cannot confirm that Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod said that Obama would select Hillary "over my dead body."

Hillary would take the second spot, Buell says, if she thought it offered her the opportunity "to do important work; Hillary is a problem solver, she's a work horse. She knows the heartbreak that some of these problems are causing people. She wants to do something about it." Universal health care is high on Hillary's agenda, adds Buell, but so is the environment. "It wasn't a topic she discussed [on the campaign trail] very much because it didn't seem that people wanted to hear about it."

Buell disputes the undercurrents that Hillary (and Bill} are secretly hoping for a McCain victory in 2008 so that Hillary can immediately set up shop to run in 2012. "She is a real Democrat. She cares about the working class; she cares about the downtrodden." Buell adds that Hillary "is very concerned about what would happen if McCain won. She's not a vindictive person. She wants what's best for this country."

A day or so before I interviewed her, Buell had obtained Obama's shortlist for VP. (She says that she has no idea if the list is accurate and suggests it could have been part of a "disinformation" campaign.) One name on it, Virginia Senator Jim Webb, took himself out of the running the afternoon Buell and I talked. The other names are Dick Gephardt, Mike Bloomberg, and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius.

In Buell's mind, Obama would err grievously by attempting to mollify the women who say they will not vote for him -- the 25 percent, for example, of Hillary supporters who claimed in one recent poll that they were voting for McCain -- by selecting a woman as VP. She says there is no woman in politics who approaches Hillary Clinton in experience, smarts, and stature. Naming Sebelius, Buell maintains, would be seen as patronizing and dishonest and further offend Hillary's supporters.

She also suggests that Obama putting Caroline Kennedy on his VP search committee was "a little word to the women. It just didn't seem like a very wise choice to me... not that she's not very smart and capable, but [vetting candidates] is not something she has done."

"I doubt it," Buell answers when asked if Hillary would accept a cabinet position in Obama's administration. As for becoming majority leader of the Senate, Buell says, it's "a possibility, and I think she's going to wait and see what unfolds. I think she'd be great as a leader, but maybe it's not Senator [Harry] Reid's time to go."

While Buell argues that Hillary will campaign her heart out for Obama, she doesn't say the same of Bill Clinton. "He has a very big responsibility with his Global Initiative [...] that was put on hold for many, many months, and he needs to get back to that and that's a priority."

He also needs to take care of himself, she says. "He was really exhausted and [...] beaten up -- hard to take that, hear all the things that are being said about your wife. I think it was harder on him than it was on her. You can take it about yourself but not the one you love."

Uncharacteristically for Susie Buell, she charges Hillary with "having to take responsibility for a great deal of [...] this great loss." Hillary's mistake? Appointing her long-time aide Patti Solis Doyle -- who started as Clinton's scheduler when she was First Lady -- with managing her campaign. Buell calls it "a poor choice that Hillary made," attributing it to Hillary allowing loyalty to trump competence. Solis Doyle, who was pushed out of Hillary's campaign in February, has since joined the Obama campaign as chief of staff to whomever Obama pics as VP. Hillary loyalists, Buell chief among them, see the Solis Doyle appointment as a gratuitous insult to Hillary and a sure signal that she is not under consideration. Patti Solis Doyle and Hillary reportedly do not speak to each other. "One of the greatest problems" in the campaign, Buell asserts, was that Hillary "wasn't allowed to be herself; that she had to kind of put on this tough act and not show her feminine power; where that's really her greatest strength." Although Buell won't name names, one might assume she is pointing to chief pollster/strategist Mark Penn and Hillary campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson.

Since watching the Clintons get bloodied in the nomination battle, Buell has rearranged her priorities. She will no longer support NARAL, calling its endorsement of Obama during the late primaries "a slap in the face to women," as well as "shortsighted" and "stupid." She uses the latter word, to describe what she calls Obama's "mess[ing] around in women's territory."

Asked if she will she give money to Obama she replies that she has to "wait and see how the Obama campaign comports itself toward the Clintons." She has not heard from him and says that he is "smart" not to call her because, "I wouldn't tell him what he wanted to hear." When he first arrived in the U.S. Senate, she recalls, "He used to call me from time to time; he's very smart about the birthday calls and he knows how to really schmooze the folks."

She had planned to go the convention -- she attended the last three -- but now that it's not Hillary's convention she has decided to stay home. She warns the Obama campaign that it had better show the Clintons "a great deal of respect. I think the Obama campaign has really been very disrespectful to both of the Clintons." If they don't make amends, she says, "I think it's going to be a problem for them."

Buell whose great uncle was Adlai Stevenson, says she could not give money to McCain. Not yet anyway. She volunteers that she and some other Hillary backers see a "reassuring" and "grandfatherly" quality in McCain (as opposed to an untested and "newcomer" quality in Obama.). She also says she'd be open to calls and meetings with McCain supporter and former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina, whom she knows, and also with former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. She has yet to be contacted by anyone from the McCain campaign. "I would be curious to see how much influence [women] are having on McCain."

She remains in close touch with Hillary who, Buell insists, harbors no bitterness; a quality that, Buell adds, has been a staple of Hillary's professional life. Buell saw Hillary during the worst of the White House scandals. She remembers, for example, sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom in April 1998, on a weekend when Hillary was deposed by Ken Starr in the White House basement and that night accompanied Bill to the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, a humiliating evening because Paula Jones was a guest of honor and her presence made headlines around the world. (In our interview in 2006 Buell recalled Hillary, just rolling her eyes at the prospect of being in the same room with Jones and being "such a good sport." about it.)

Buell does not want to see Barack Obama deliver a speech on sexism in politics, like the one he delivered on race after the Reverend Wright controversy exploded. She would find such a move "very offensive -- if he was going to talk about it he should have talked about it while it was going on."

Buell is a founder of a PAC called Women Count. (WomenCountPAC.com). "The first thing we're going to be tackling is gender bias." The group, founded in May, ran the full-page newspaper ads, "Not so Fast," during the campaign, when calls for Hillary to drop out before the primaries were over were coming from all directions.

Buell will also be working to help Hillary retire her $20 million campaign debt, including the $12 million she and Bill loaned the campaign. Asked if Obama will help, she says, "it's traditional that the winner does, but they're driving a hard bargain. I don't think they're being as supportive as it was expected."

On the airplane with Hillary that night last June, Susie told her, "No matter what happens your best work is yet to come." Hillary responded, Buell recalls, with "a look of clam and confidence. I just believe that she's making the most of this situation, that she is seeing this as an opportunity to grow her consciousness even greater, to learn even more." The battle made Hillary a better politician, "more defined as a political figure." The public, Buell says, came "to understand what her true greatness is," to watch her get back in the arena every morning, displaying "so much energy and grace under so much stress." (Buell credits Hillary's ability to withstand the rigors of the campaign to her habit of "power napping. She'll take a little 20-minute nap -- no matter what.")

Since conceding the race to Obama, Hillary has been resting, "taking care of herself, doing a little yoga." She recently told Susie that losing was "painful and disappointing," but she understands that "this goes with the territory" and is, Buell says, "just powering through."

Post script: When I interviewed Susie Buell in September 2006, we discussed compromises Bill Clinton and other successful politicians had to make. "I'm a very practical person. I ran my own business. I immediately understood the compromises you have to make. It was very similar to the ones you have to make in business. To this day, I get very frustrated with people who don't understand that you have to do things that you wish you didn't have to do in order to stay going on."

Susie Buell also observed in 2006, months before Hillary entered the race for the nomination: "The more capable you are the more uphill fight you have. Hillary will have the hardest time because she's the best candidate." Buell today certainly stands by that prediction.