Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech Saturday conceding the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama couldn’t have been classier — and couldn’t have been more auspicious for the party’s chances of capturing the White House in November. It might have taken her a few days, but she delivered. Big-time.

It’s no secret that I’ve found plenty of fault with the way Clinton, her staff and her husband, Bill, ran their campaign. But I can’t find a thing wrong with the way she ended it, delivering a gracious and stirring address beneath the soaring, faux-marble columns of the National Building Museum. She chose one of Washington’s grandest interior spaces for her valedictory, and her words lived up to the setting.

All morning, the Republican National Committee had been sending out e-mails highlighting the nasty things Clinton and Obama had said about each other and predicting that “Democrat Party disunity” would sweep John McCain to victory. Republicans must have been hoping that Clinton would reprise her performance of last Tuesday night, when she failed to acknowledge that Obama had clinched the nomination.

The intensity of the campaign and the divisions it created were evident Saturday when, well into the speech, Clinton first mentioned her opponent’s name, calling on supporters 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.” There were cheers, but also some boos.

Clinton went on to praise Obama, but not in terms so lavish that she might have sounded disingenuous — it was, after all, a heated campaign that got personal at times — and proceeded to build a cogent argument for party unity. She began by listing the core issues that Democrats care about: shared economic prosperity, universal health care, civil rights, labor rights, ending the war in Iraq. She mentioned “the Supreme Court” without elaboration, because none was required; everyone understood she was saying that McCain, if elected, almost certainly would have the opportunity to complete the conservative transformation of the court.

Then came the “money” line, the big payoff: “So today I am standing with Sen. Obama to say: Yes, we can!”

During the campaign, she had mocked Obama’s signature slogan as pie in the sky, countering with her own cry of “Yes, we will.” By using Obama’s words, she was making clear that there was nothing ambiguous about her support.

In many ways, I thought that the most important part of the speech was the section in which she talked about being the first woman to have had a realistic chance of becoming president. It had been easy, at times, to lose sight of just how historic Clinton’s candidacy was. Her greatest success in the campaign came when she fully embraced her role as a pioneer who spoke for the aspirations of women, who ran as “a daughter who benefited from opportunities my mother never dreamed of” and “a mother who worries about my daughter’s future.”

Then she spoke directly to the women who constituted her most devoted and reliable base of support: “When you hear people saying, or think to yourself, ‘If only,’ or, “What if,’ I say, please, don’t go there. Every moment wasted looking back keeps us from moving forward.”

She had done all she could do to leave her supporters no wiggle room — to give them no permission to dwell on incidents of sexism, to create no space for reservations about Obama, to eliminate any excuse for sitting out the fall campaign. It’s true that actions speak louder than words, so we’ll see how Clinton makes good on her pledge to “work my heart out to make sure that Sen. Obama is our next president.” But I find it hard to imagine how Clinton’s words could have been more definitive.

Her delivery was sensational, too. I thought back to the early primaries, when Clinton’s stump speech was little more than a wonkish list of proposals. This time, she had total command of her material and her audience, total command of the moment. From now on, whenever an oratorical performance is described as Clintonesque, the adjective will refer not only to Bill, who stood nearby and beamed with pride, but also to Hillary.

I couldn’t help thinking that if the polished, passionate candidate we watched bow out on Saturday had emerged in time to compete in Iowa, things might have turned out differently. But I’ll do as Clinton asked. I won’t go there.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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