I caught Bill Clinton’s speech on the radio driving back from a minor league baseball game in Woodbridge, Virginia. Woodbridge is far enough outside the beltway that nary a person sitting near me tonight mentioned politics. But despite its distance from my house, about 40 miles, Bill’s oration lasted for nearly the entirety of my drive home.
Clinton devoted almost his entire speech to trying to paint an attractive picture of Hillary. The “Secretary of Explaining Sh*t” (as Obama supposedly once called him) and the master of attacking Republicans did very little of either tonight. Instead, he served up the history of his marriage (minus the juicy parts) in an attempt to convince America that Hillary is the world’s greatest “change maker,” while also trying to humanize her.
Did Bill accomplish either of these objectives? Probably not; both were too ambitious.
I do think that Bill, by going all the way back to Hillary’s law school days, made a good run at the “change maker” bit. He showed that Hillary has made a difference in the realm of public policy in ways that, in some cases, have made people’s lives better. In this regard, she clearly has Donald Trump beat. On the other hand, Trump has been highly (though not invariably) successful in business.
The problem tonight was that Bill’s case became less persuasive with each decade he described. Hillary probably had, as Bill argued, accomplished more in the public policy realm by the age of 30 than many politicians do in a lifetime. Thereafter, it seems she also did some good in the 1980s in Arkansas.
But in the 1990s, as First Lady, she is best known for her failure with health care reform. Bill argued that after this failure she helped push through lesser reforms. But having spoken for maybe half an hour by this point, and with increasingly less good material to work with, the former president was losing steam.
Bill wasn’t able to get his momentum back when he discussed Hillary’s Senate years. In fact, he lost some, as he tried to fast talk his way through the trade issue (she supported some deals and opposed others, Bill hurriedly said).
As for her time as Secretary of State, Bill focused mainly on forgotten initiatives and women’s and LGBT (no “Q” at this convention, apparently) issues. Naturally, there was nothing about Libya, the Russian reset, or the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
In a departure from almost every one of the scores of speakers who preceded him, Bill did at least use the word terrorism. But even the Secretary of Explaining Sh*t didn’t undertake a defense of President Obama’s national security policy during the time Hillary was Secretary of State.
Of Hillary’s post State Department time, Bill had nothing to say. In theory, helping to run a major charity should provide both some difference making and some humanizing material. In the context of the Clinton Foundation, the less said the better, Bill seems to have concluded.
How about Bill’s second task, humanizing Hillary? Again, he made a good run at it, telling the story of their romance and the early years of their marriage in his peerless story teller style.
His tale may have warmed the hearts of Hillary’s most ardent supporters, but I’m not sure it humanized Hillary for the rest of America.
For one thing, a spouse in this context will always praise the candidate to the sky. To be sure, Bill Clinton is better at this than your typical spouse, and certainly better than Melania Trump.
But much of America knows how Bill repeatedly cheated on Hillary during the allegedly blissful years he depicted tonight. His cheating isn’t a serious issue in this year’s race, but it provides an unfortunate gloss on his testimony about the marriage. Stated differently, for many Americans, it may have been the 800 pound gorilla in the convention hall.
How does one square Bill’s love story with his serial adultery and predatory behavior towards women? It can, perhaps, be done. But only at a psychological level that neither Bill nor Hillary wants us to get anywhere near.
There’s also the question of the extent to which Bill humanized Hillary by portraying her as a relentless change maker. He kept saying that raising Chelsea was always foremost for her, but was this believable? And did it need to be?
Here we get deeper into sexual politics than I care to go, but I think the questions are worth asking.
In sum, Bill Clinton delivered a strong performance tonight. The old boy still has it on the podium.
But Team Trump probably will be glad that Bill’s gifts were employed to try to build up his wife rather than to attack Trump. This meant not only that Trump dodged potential bullets (the kind that did some damage to Romney in Bill’s 2012 convention speech), but also that Team Clinton understands how deeply unpopular Hillary is.
Bill’s speech may elevate her a little, but it’s difficult to see it changing to a major degree how Americans view this woman they feel they know rather well.
UPDATE: Here’s a more persuasive description of the Bill and Hillary love story and how it produced a decline in Hillary’s moral trajectory. The description comes from David Brock, of all people, in his 1996 book The Seduction of Hillary Rodham Clinton:
Through [her] marriage, Hillary has seen not only the heights of political triumph but also the depths of personal defeat. It was Bill Clinton who brought her into contact with the gritty money-politics of Arkansas, entangling her in a web of unsavory associations from which she attempted to distance herself — first in Little Rock, then in Washington — but which followed her to the White House and ultimately wreaked havoc on her life and reputation.
Because she has been forced to make hard compromises to protect both her marriage and Bill’s political future, Hillary’s struggle to preserve her dignity has become the central drama of her life. . . .
Hillary’s story is that of an intelligent, talented, ambitious, and very determined woman who nevertheless succumbed to powerfully seductive forces — philosophical, political, and personal.
These include the easy moral certitudes of the Christian left; the fashionable instrumental legal doctrines disseminated at Yale Law School; the situational ethics and power-based political philosophies of a certain strain of 1960s radicalism; the dangerously tempting belief, instilled by influential mentors, in the beneficent potential of government as a force for social progress; the frictionless ease of manipulating the levers of power in a corrupt one-party state; and the idealized vision of a new kind of political partnership with her husband that proved impossible to realize.
Above all, she has repeatedly succumbed to the seductive attraction of Bill Clinton himself, perhaps the most articulate, beguiling, and empathetic figure ever to emerge on the American political scene.