WASHINGTON -- The Democratic congressman thought his credentials were in order. He was popular, from a prominent district and the ranking member of a key committee. Most important, he had not endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential race. So through an intermediary, he asked Bill Clinton to headline a fundraiser. The answer: no.
The go-between reminded the former president that the congressman had remained neutral in the race between Obama and Hillary Clinton.
"Yeah, but neutral was the same as endorsing Barack," the former president said, according to the intermediary, who declined to be named because of continuing friendships with both men. "The answer is still no."
Bill Clinton prefers to help Democrats such as Kathleen Kane, a lawyer who won the party's nomination for attorney general of Pennsylvania on Tuesday night. In 2008, Kane, who hails from a prominent political family, raised money for Hillary and was her northeast Pennsylvania coordinator. The former president not only endorsed Kane in this election; he also offered to speak at a rally in the Philadelphia suburbs earlier this month.
"He called us and said, 'Can I do an event?' and we said ... 'Heck YES!'" recalled Frank Keel, Kane's press aide. "He's unbelievably popular in the state."
As it happens, Kane's losing primary foe was former Rep. Patrick Murphy, an early Obama backer who was endorsed by the current president's media guru, David Axelrod.
The Clintons had another notable victory in Pennsylvania this week. In drawing the new congressional map, the Republican-led legislature had put two incumbent Democratic House members in the same new district in western Pennsylvania. Rep. Jason Altmire had flirted at length with endorsing Hillary in 2008 -- he went so far as to demand a long car ride with the former president -- but in the end stayed neutral. Rep. Mark Critz's predecessor, an old bull named John Murtha, had endorsed Hillary.
That history was apparently enough for Bill. He endorsed Critz, who won on Tuesday.
We have three leading political parties in America today: Republican, Democratic and Clinton. The last is a mom-and-pop operation, with a Chelsea. It's been 12 years since they had a president in office, but they still keep score, tend to their base and ponder what to do next with their political, financial and charitable clout.
"What's next?" is not an idle question. While Bill rewards Hillary's 2008 friends and cultivates a new generation of allies, she wins solid marks as secretary of state, rides a wave of cult status on the web and watches as the Beltway chattering classes wonder aloud whether she will be a candidate for president in 2016. She has said no in many ways, none of them utterly definitive. "And nobody would believe her anyway, no matter how Shermanesque," said Phillipe Reines, her longtime aide.
The issue isn't whether Hillary could do it; she could. She will turn 65 in October (Bill reached that milestone last August). She seems hale and unsullied by more than 300 days and a million miles of travel to 95 countries as secretary of state. She tells friends that she has never worked harder in her life, that the work sometimes feels overwhelming, and yet she seems to thrive on the demands. Her late mother, Dorothy Howell Rodham, died at the age of 92 and was in fine health until her last months. Were Hillary to run and win in 2016, she would be 70 on Inauguration Day. Ronald Reagan turned 70 his first month in office.
Hillary's almost stoic durability was on display recently at a State Department briefing in the Franklin Dining Room, a colossal expanse festooned with marble pillars, crystal chandeliers and oil paintings of dead diplomats.
A sensible minute past the appointed time, Hillary swept in, casually carrying a mug of tea and a sheaf of briefing papers. She wore a handsome black-and-white pantsuit, an extra-long strand of double pearls and the look of an envoy supremely confident in her role, her knowledge and her station in life. She took three questions and three questions only -- they run a tight ship at State -- and answered them with clipped authority. Then, with a thin, business-like smile, she turned and left the room.
"She's not the one with the sweeping vision," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "That's Obama's role. But she's pragmatic and sensible. I'd say that she has a solid, workmanlike record."
Having paid her dues over a dozen years in two high-level jobs (New York senator and secretary of state), the question is what she wants to do next. She has said that she will not serve in this or any other capacity in a second Obama term, if there is one. She will not attend the Democratic convention. (Secretaries of state, by custom, never do.) Her current role gives her an excuse not to campaign for Obama. She won't. She expresses a fond hope of focusing on grandmotherly duties, but Chelsea and her husband, Marc Mezvinsky, have yet to produce a reason for any.
Some of her friends expect Hillary to join the Clinton Foundation, her husband's 10-year-old and increasingly influential global nonprofit. "I think she wants to take a break, relax and take stock, and then work on ideas and causes she has cared about all of her life, particularly women's rights and children's rights," said her longtime friend Elizabeth Bagley. "A natural place to do that would be the Clinton Foundation."
But none of her friends -- on or off the record -- rule out the possibility that she would run for president. "Depending on the lay of the land in a few years, I think she'll do it," said one, who insisted on anonymity so that she could talk freely about conversations she has had with Hillary. "She doesn't look back, but she also never stops thinking, listening and growing. And the glass ceiling is still here, still unbroken at the top."
Her husband says he doubts she will run, but he is tending the fields nevertheless, prospecting for foundation supporters and paying off old political debts, with a shrewd eye toward renewing the franchise just in case. In the wealthy (and donor-rich) Maryland suburbs of Washington, for example, the former president endorsed a political novice, millionaire banker John Delaney, for the district's Democratic congressional nomination. Yes, Delaney and his wife, April, were major Hillary bundlers in 2008.
The state's Democratic establishment, including U.S. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, backed Delaney's foe. With TV spots and robo calls from Bill -- and $1.7 million of his own money -- Delaney won.
"We were huge Hillary supporters," said April. Presumably they would be again, if the occasion arises.