At the Democratic national convention next week, Lynn Forester, Lady de Rothschild, one of Britain’s most influential political hostesses, will be contemplating treachery. She poured her heart and money into Hillary Clinton’s campaign and she is thinking of voting for John McCain, the Republican candidate, for president.
She is not impressed by Barack Obama and doubts he will reach the White House. “My loyalty is to the Democrats winning. Barack Obama is going to have a serious problem getting elected, for good reason,” she said in an interview.
“The party needs to face the fact that without Hillary Clinton on the ticket, the Democrats will probably lose.”
Rothschild, 54, is a New York businesswoman and top fundraiser for Clinton who married into the British banking dynasty.
The billionaire Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, 22 years her senior and former chairman of the family firm, NM Rothschild, will be with her in Denver when Obama is crowned the victor. She regards the presumptive Democratic nominee, 47, as something of a usurper.
The Rothschilds spent the night of their wedding dinner in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House when Bill Clinton was president, so her loyalty to Hillary is understandable. However, the passionate distrust of Obama shared by many Clinton supporters is turning into a headache for the Democrats.
Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s former White House chief of staff, was tasked by the Obama campaign this summer with soothing ruffled feelings and helping Hillary loyalists to get over their sense of loss. It has been a demanding assignment.
“There is a sense of entitlement that almost seems to be inbred,” Panetta said. “They are convinced Hillary is the one who should be assuming the mantle and it’s tough to crack that.”
Rothschild is the founder of Together4Us, a group formed to “honour” Clinton and the nearly 18m voters who supported her in the primaries. Among its demands were a state-by-state roll-call of votes - a final show of muscle by the vanquished Clinton - and a prime speaking slot for her.
They got what they wanted after Obama caved in last week. Seasoned advisers fear the convention is shaping up to be a divisive Bill and Hillary psycho-drama. “It’s not something that I would have recommended, but they’re trying to bend over backwards as far as they can to accommodate her,” said Panetta. “I’m a little disturbed that this keeps playing out.”
The former president and first lady will both deliver big speeches, while diehard Hillary supporters will hold rallies and acclaim their candidate during the roll-call of votes.
“I think the roll-call will be a cathartic moment,” said Rothschild. “There will be a lot of people who will say, ‘Oh, what might have been’ and will vote for Obama but there will be a lot of tears.”
The roll-call will not be enough to bring Rothschild back into the fold, however. “We’re not going to win by pretending problems with Barack Obama don’t exist. He has a huge problem connecting with ordinary Americans, who think, ‘He doesn’t understand me.’ He is not modest; he is arrogant. He radiates elitism.”
It is a surprising charge from a wealthy socialite, but Rothschild believes she understands true grit. She was born Lynn Forester from New Jersey and built her multi-million-dollar telecommunications company before she met her husband. “It is not disloyal to raise legitimate questions about Barack Obama,” she said. “He started running for president before he even set foot in the US Senate.
“No matter what he says, he has not explained properly why he sat next to Reverend Jeremiah Wright [his former pastor] for 20 years. He talks about an end to partisanship but he has no record of reaching across the aisle for any purpose.”
The Atlantic magazine revealed last week that Mark Penn, Clinton’s former chief strategist, proposed targeting Obama’s lack of American roots during the primary campaign.
“I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his centre fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values,” he wrote in an internal campaign e-mail.
Although Rothschild shuttles between London and New York, she shares Penn’s assessment. “Barack Obama can use the words ‘the American dream’, but they don’t resonate,” she said. “He magnified the problem by going to Berlin and calling himself a citizen of the world.” She also resents a lack of effort to pay off Clinton’s $20m campaign debt. “He has provided her with a pittance compared to what the Clintons have given Obama,” Rothschild said. “Her debt could have been cleared within 10 days. It’s ungracious.”
She is particularly incensed by the treatment of Bill Clinton during the primaries, when the former president was accused of playing the race card. “Barack Obama would not stand up and say, ‘It’s outrageous, it’s not permissible’ and speak up for him.” How Bill Clinton will perform at the convention is a source of nervousness for Democrats. “Clearly his wounds are deeper than I thought,” said Panetta, “but ultimately he understands what he has got to do in terms of supporting the candidate and the party.”
The enduring hostility to Obama is reflected in a Pew poll, published last week, showing that 18% of Clinton supporters intend to vote for McCain. With polling averages close to a dead heat between McCain and Obama, every vote counts.
Rothschild has not yet made up her mind. “I haven’t ruled out voting for McCain,” she said. “I like him a lot.” She is waiting to see who Obama picks as his running mate and has her heart set on Clinton.
The favourite is Joe Biden, 65, who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee. He once described Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean”, sealing his reputation for putting his foot in his mouth, but he has the security and foreign policy credentials to take on McCain.
Biden will speak on Wednesday next week - the same day as the eventual vice-presidential nominee. But Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, another fancied choice, and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico also have speaking slots then.
Both McCain and Obama were due to court evangelical voters yesterday at the California mega-church of pastor Rick Warren. In a recent poll, McCain led Obama by 67% to 25% among evangelical white Protestants, a gap Obama hopes to narrow.
Warren told The Sunday Times: “Without doubt, Obama is more comfortable talking the language of religion [than McCain]. In the past, Republicans talked about God and Jesus and the Democrats were silent. This year, their roles are reversed.”
The meeting, he said, was designed to make a statement that the “era of the partisan religious right” was over.