Thanks to the digging of The Atlantic Monthly's Joshua Green, we now have a sense of what a Hillary Clinton presidency would have been like. And, Lord knows, it would not have been pretty.
The most eye-catching detail to emerge from The Atlantic's reporting, thus far, is the battle plan devised by Clinton's chief strategist Mark Penn to attack Obama for his "limited" connection to "basic American values and culture."
But the overall picture painted by the astonishing collection of internal memos and e-mails that Green collected from Clinton campaign insiders is that, when it comes to leadership, the former first lady is, to put it plainly, a dysfunctional mess.
As Green puts it, "What is clear from the internal documents is that Clinton's loss derived not from any specific decision she made but rather from the preponderance of the many she did not make. Her hesitancy and habit of avoiding hard choices exacted a price that eventually sank her chances at the presidency."
Clinton has presided over only two big enterprises in her life, the ill-fated attempt at health-care reform during her husband's first term and her bid for the White House. It is now safe to say that she botched both of them badly.
Imagine the consequences if what Green describes as the "anger and toxic obsessions" that characterized her campaign were to erupt in a Clinton administration suddenly confronted with, oh let's say, a Russian invasion of Georgia on the eve of the Olympics.
Green's disclosures are already being exhaustively analyzed by top notch reporters like Dan Balz of The Washington Post and Mike Allen of Politico. Predictably, Penn's strategy of painting Obama as some kind of exotic alien is dominating the headlines.
In one memo, Penn quipped, "Won't a single tape of [the Rev. Jeremiah] Wright going off on America with Obama sitting there be a game ender?"
In another, he proclaimed "I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values. He told the people of NH yesterday he has a Kansas accent because his mother was from there. His mother lived in many states as far as we can tell—but this is an example of the nonsense he uses to cover this up."
Clinton declined most of Penn's advice, but she signed off on an attempt to portray Obama as a power-hungry fanatic by dredging up a paper he wrote in kindergarten titled, "I Want to be President." How petty can you get?
This is all fascinating stuff, and could offer John McCain a roadmap for a negative blitz. But I'm more interested in what these revelations—along with John Edwards' carefully crafted confession last week about his unfaithfulness—say about how close the country came to selecting a leader whose public image is totally at odds with her or his actual personality.
Clinton based her campaign on the idea that her experience made her ready to lead on day one. It's now pretty obvious that she does not have the chops to manage a large organization effectively.
Edwards projected the image of a heroic battler for the underdog, whose passion was exemplified by his loyalty to his cancer-victim wife. It turns out, he's a cad.
All of us should breathe a sigh of relief that we found out about these candidates' flaws when we did. Had the truth about either of them emerged after they won the nomination, the Republicans would likely have cruised into the White House. If we had learned the facts after they entered the White House, it would have been a disaster.
We must always be on guard.
One of these days there may be comparable leaks about Obama's campaign, telling us things about him we never imagined.
We'll find out what he really felt about Jeremiah Wright's cantankerous performance at the National Press Club and McCain's comical but effective TV spots likening the Illinois senator to Charleton Heston's Moses parting the Red Sea. We'll understand more why he made cynical political moves like reversing himself on Bush's FISA bill and off-shore drilling.
We'll be able to see more clearly the steely ambition and cynical compromises that lifted him out of obscurity to being only one step away from becoming the most powerful man in the world in a remarkably short time.
Lord knows, not everything we will learn about Obama is going to be pretty. No politician ever lives up to our expectations, and he will be no exception.
We can only hope that the divide between his true self and his public image is not as wide as those of his rivals.
Or, to put it another way, that if he's a phony, he's not as phony as they are.
Jack White is a freelance writer in Richmond, Virginia.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.