Washington's power elite are no strangers to cloak and dagger politics, but there was consternation yesterday as the media discovered it had been outfoxed by the two most recognisable people in America, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
They managed to disappear in plain sight, dropping off the map to hold secret talks, their first private meeting since becoming rivals for the US presidency.
The entourage of camera crews, bloggers and old-fashioned print journalists that follows Mr Obama around the country, only learnt it had been hoodwinked – that the candidate was not on board the campaign plane – as the engines were warming up for takeoff. And as the Boeing 757 sped down the runway at Dulles international airport bound for Mr Obama's home base in Chicago, frantic journalists whipped out their BlackBerrys to file alerts. The ABC News correspondent Sunlen Miller reported that Mr Obama, who had just headlined a huge rally in Virginia, had given them the slip. "I sent it as the wheels were going up," she recounted, describing the dismay of her colleagues.
The intrigue began much earlier in the afternoon, when the California senator Dianne Feinstein, a long-time backer of Mrs Clinton, received a call from her close friend, asking to use her home for a meeting with Mr Obama.
"They just want an opportunity to meet together alone," she said, revealing that the meeting started about 9pm. "I received them. Put them in the living room, two comfortable chairs facing one another and left," she said.
There were no staff, note-takers or security, just water for the candidates. One person from each campaign sat in Ms Feinstein's study. "They talked. I went upstairs and did my work."
More than an hour passed, after which "they called me when it was over. I came down and I said, 'Good night everybody. I hope you had a good meeting'. They were laughing, and that was it." Ms Feinstein refused to give any further details about the conversation, noting only that "they got along very well".
The outcome of their tête- à-tête could prove crucial to Mr Obama's chances of being elected in November. Notwithstanding speculation about the vice-presidential slot on the Democratic ticket, Mrs Clinton is now in a position to help or harm his candidacy. After winning 18 million votes, she has emerged as a much more powerful national politician. "When she began this campaign, she was still the former first lady, the senator married to President Clinton," commented Michael Berman, a Democratic strategist. "I think she is now the Clinton."
But the first thing she needs to do is secure her own future. To do that, she needs to put her heart and soul into campaigning for Mr Obama in the coming months or be damned for being disloyal. She cannot risk being blamed for another Democratic loss in November, especially as many now believe, she is biding her time for another run at the presidency in 2012 if Mr Obama loses in November or in 2016 is he is successful.
"She's extraordinarily important to his campaign," an anonymous Clinton adviser remarked. "She can help rally the Democratic base and let him focus on swing voters."
But nobody except the two candidates knows what actually transpired at their meeting and it is thought unlikely that he has asked her to be his running mate in November. There are lots of other important roles Mrs Clinton could play whether back in the Senate or in an Obama administration. She might even prefer a job for life as a liberal justice on the Supreme Court.
As the two politicians discussed their tactics for the months ahead, Washington was being treated to an evening of Where's Wally meets the Keystone Cops. Camera crews fanned out across the city to track Mr Obama down. For a man who promises to restore a modicum of honesty to Washington, he revealed himself an adept practitioner in the arts of deception.
Earlier in the day, Mrs Clinton issued a statement playing down speculation that she was seeking to be Mr Obama's running mate. Mr Obama said that he expected them to meet "in a couple of weeks".
Even as the Secret Service delivered the candidate to Ms Feinstein's house, the city was awash with rumours. Mr Obama's staff encouraged speculation that he was meeting Mrs Clinton at her elegant townhouse on Washington's Whitehaven Street.
For hours CNN long-range cameras were trained on an SUV parked outside Mrs Clinton's home. From time to time someone would appear at the front door prompting a buzz of speculation that the two rivals were about to make a joint statement.
It was only when the plane landed two hours later in Chicago that Mr Obama's communications director Robert Gibbs revealed that a meeting had already taken place between the two. By that time Mr Obama was already boarding a private jet to Chicago. After all the intrigue, he is taking a few days off, going on a date with his wife, Michelle, and planning a bike ride with his two young children.Reuse content