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The secret friendship of Hillary Clinton and John McCain

June 11, 2008 |  4:27 am

It's one of those things that sneaks up on you in politics, a sense of things happening not quite as you expected. It started in April when our Times colleague Louise Roug called with a quote from Sen. Hillary Clinton.

She'd shaken hands at a factory gate in Toledo, Ohio, then before flying to Texas held a mediaSenators John McCain and Hillary Clinton who've quietly become good friends availability where she said: "Sen. McCain brings a lifetime of experience to the campaign. I bring a lifetime of experience. And Sen. Obama brings a speech he gave in 2002."

A pretty good zinger that got Clinton into the day's news flow while her plane was heading to an Austin, Texas, rally.

But why would the Democratic candidate mention the Republican at all? Let alone in a positive way as qualified to be president in comparison to a fellow Democrat?

That thought quickly passed in the flood of primaries and news.

But then in the final weeks of the primary season, as the inevitable delegate math closed in on Clinton, she attacked Barack Obama, of course. He was ahead. And she clearly didn't want four more years of President Bush. John McCain, already running for the general election, attacked Obama. And Obama fired back at the Republican.

But neither Clinton nor McCain fired at each other.

Then after the last night of primary ballot-counting, Clinton and Obama spoke briefly about each other. McCain uttered one sentence ...

... about Obama.

And then the Arizona Republican said this about the wife of the only Democrat to be elected twice since FDR: "Sen. Clinton has earned great respect for her tenacity and courage. The media often overlooked how compassionately she spoke to the concerns and dreams of millions of Americans, and she deserves a lot more appreciation than she sometimes received.

"As the father of three daughters, I owe her a debt for inspiring millions of women to believe there is no opportunity in this great country beyond their reach. I am proud to call her my friend."

And then a week ago this morning it became clear that the Democratic Party was forcing Clinton to end her bid. On Saturday, Obama went golfing. Clinton and her family dressed as if for a funeral and went to thank their supporters with a grateful speech and, on paper, a hearty, full endorsement of Obama.

But something was missing. Not one word in the speech about the Republican nominee that Obama must now confront for the White House.

As she was speaking, the McCain campaign's new website blog, The McCain Report, posted a special tribute to the losing Democratic candidate, familiarly headlined "Hillary Out," something the Obama campaign didn't fully match for two days.

"Sen. Clinton has really grown on us," McCain blogger Michael Goldfarb wrote. "She ran an impressive campaign ... an impressive candidate ... inspired a generation of women. ... Sen. Clinton also didn't mention John McCain once during her speech. This came as something of a surprise over here, and a pleasant one at that. But it's clear that John McCain and Hillary Clinton respect each other -- and there is a genuine affection for her here at McCain HQ."

The blog post included a photo of McCain and Clinton together on a ship in the Arctic during one of their several journeys as members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. These things do not happen on official campaign websites spontaneously or by accident. Nor does the enemy get accidentally omitted from a major speech.

So The Ticket called a bunch of people who know both McCain and Clinton. It's true, they confirmed, there is a special friendship between them. And it apparently started in January of 2001, when Clinton became the first former first lady elected to public office and walked into the U.S. Senate.

It has always been a gentlemen's club, if not always populated by gentlemen. And the warmth toward Clinton was missing. Until McCain walked up and heartily welcomed the newcomer and showed her around. "They really hit it off," said one friend.

Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on an Arctic trip

They shared many things, including a candid tongue. Both also have at times been at odds with their own parties. They found they could work together across the aisle as committee members and enjoyed each other's company on fact-finding trips around the world. In Estonia, according to one famous tale, Clinton challenged McCain to a vodka shot-drinking contest, which he readily accepted.

Later, McCain remarked to friends "she was one of the guys," a high compliment among guys.

Learning about their unexpected friendship got us to thinking about a few things. What if McCain and Clinton, both their party's front-runners a year ago today, ended up confronting each other in the general election? Would we have seen a more civil campaign for a change?

According to several sources, including the Atlantic's respected Marc Ambinder, McCain came within a breath of publicly promising last year that his would be a one-term presidency. Aides convinced him it was an unnecessary chip to discard then.

Meanwhile, Clinton appears to be delivering early on her commitment to help Obama, steering her financial supporters to assist him in recent days, though some demur.

She's promised "to do all that I can" to help ensure his election, which sounds good but is practically hard to define. There will be some grand unity event soon. And at the Denver convention. But we'll see about the fall come fall.

The fact is, many of her 18 million supporters may not go for Obama. Wouldn't it be an amazing end scenario to an amazing political season if the working-class supporters, especially women, of the Clinton who so many Republicans love to hate helped elect the GOP senator from Arizona that so many Republicans have their own doubts about?

Such a Republican win, even a narrow one, as unlikely as it seems right now, would erase the present presidential hopes of the usurper Obama and could clear the way in 2012 for another try by that same Clinton, who'll only be 64 then.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Photo credits: Associated Press; The McCain Report.

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