Eight years ago, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri opted to back Hillary Clinton for president — not Barack Obama, who was bidding to be the nation’s first black president.
Cleaver, an African-American, endured withering criticism for his decision.
“It was horrible,” the former Kansas City mayor recalled this week. He was called a traitor to his race, a Tom.
Eight years ago, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a fellow Democrat, also went against the tide, backing Obama over Clinton. Clinton was vying then, as well as now, to be the nation’s first female president.
“It was really hard,” McCaskill said. “A lot of my women supporters across the country were very disappointed in me.”
The good news for both: The 2016 race has been far simpler to navigate, and neither has faced the same pointed criticism for their decisions to back Clinton.
“This,” McCaskill said Monday, “was easy.”
The two looked back at the contest eight years ago and agreed that emotions got way out of hand.
“Hillary versus Obama. That was one of the most unhealthy moments that we’ve ever had in American politics,” Cleaver said. “We’ve gotten beyond it. Thank God.”
The takeaway for Cleaver that year? There’s great value in staying true to your friends. The congressman and the Clintons had been close since long before Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992.
For McCaskill, the lesson was a reminder to stay true to her personal pledge to make a difference. That was a lesson that she had drifted away from during the intense 2008 campaign when, early on, she was neutral in the Democratic race.
One day, her daughter Maddie challenged her.
“My daughter just kind of nailed me and said, ‘The reason you’re staying neutral is because you think it’s going to hurt you politically,’ ” McCaskill said.
“She was right. I was worried about the political consequences of taking a stand. That was like a bucket of cold water on my head.”
About the same time, Obama won the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, and McCaskill made a decision.
“I called the (Obama campaign) next day and said, ‘I’m in.’ ”
Given his long ties to the Clintons, Cleaver never hesitated to back Hillary Clinton in 2008. Much of Bill Clinton’s presidency and Cleaver’s tenure as Kansas City’s mayor overlapped, and Cleaver said Kansas City benefited.
Clinton’s administration supported funding of the Bruce R. Watkins highway, for the 18th & Vine Jazz District and for construction of the Chouteau Bridge.
“People were beating up on me, saying we were getting too much stuff,” Cleaver recalled.
Then there’s the story of Cleaver securing one of Bill Clinton’s saxophones for display at the American Jazz Museum in the jazz district. After Clinton had left office, Cleaver approached him.
“He said, ‘Oh, man, why would you ask me for my sax?’ ”
“I said, ‘Mr. President, I know you can get another sax.’ ”
Time passed. One day two years later, Cleaver was talking to Hillary Clinton, who by then was a senator from New York.
“I hate to bring this up this up, but your husband promised me a sax, and I haven’t gotten it yet,” Cleaver said.
“How long ago was this?” Hillary Clinton said.
Said the senator, “I’ll take care of it.”
A week later, a military aide from Little Rock, Ark., came to Kansas City with a Clinton saxophone in hand.
So when Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008, Cleaver decided he would back her despite the opportunity to back the first black presidential contender.
“I know somebody for 25 years, and then somebody (Obama) runs who I didn’t know,” Cleaver said. “None of us knew him. So I said, ‘No, I’m not going to leave’ ” Clinton’s campaign.
As Obama’s prospects in 2008 improved, the criticism aimed at Cleaver grew. But he insisted he didn’t waver.
“It became a test of my blackness,” he said. “I just said, ‘Hey, I don’t leave my friends.’ ”
At one point, Hillary Clinton called Cleaver and told him she had heard that he was taking a lot of heat for standing beside her.
“I want you to know I appreciate it,” Cleaver recalled Clinton saying. “If you have to go, I understand.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Cleaver said.
Cleaver bumped into Obama once and told him about his ties to the Clintons. Cleaver said Obama understood. In fact, in 2012, Obama named Cleaver a national co-chairman of his re-election campaign in part because of the loyalty Cleaver had once shown Clinton. Obama was impressed by that, Cleaver said.
Cleaver recalled Harry Truman’s decision to attend Tom Pendergast’s funeral in 1945 when Truman had just been sworn in as vice president. Pendergast, who ruled Kansas City in the 1930s, had spent time in federal prison for tax evasion, but Truman said only that they had once been friends. Pendergast, in fact, helped launch Truman’s political career.
Today, Cleaver views Hillary Clinton as enormously misunderstood. She’s warmer and more dedicated than so many believe, he said.
“It’s taken 25 years or more for people to demonize her to the point where people accept it as a truth, but can’t explain it,” he said.
After the Democratic convention, Cleaver flies to Minneapolis to campaign for her. Two weekends ago, it was six Iowa cities in three days. He’s been to Illinois, Indiana, Florida, Pennsylvania and Salt Lake City for her.
The loyalty paid off. On Thursday evening, Cleaver is to address Democrats on perhaps the convention’s most-watched night.
He wants to make sure America elects its first female president.
“It’s a big deal, particularly after the nation has elected its first African-American president,” he said.
“We’re 3,000 years behind Egypt with Cleopatra.”
McClatchy Washington correspondent Lindsay Wise contributed to this report.