The genius of Bill Clinton is not just that he can beat the Republicans silly in both policy and politics, but that he is a Scheherazade who can tell a pretty long story like the one he told Tuesday night about his wife and still get you to listen to every syllable of it till the very end. I hardly listen to Fox News, but last night, even many of his most carping critics on that cable news were awestruck by Clinton’s unrivalled ability to cast a spell on his audience as he humanized Hillary Clinton who hours earlier had made history as the first female presidential nominee of a major political party in America.
Speaking from the podium at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, the former president gave all Americans a tale of two Hillarys, the real Hillary who is a change maker possessed of a great and kind heart, and the cartoonish Hillary created by the Republicans and rightwing talk radio, and feverishly promoted by the rest of the media for over two decades now.
Clinton was following in the footsteps of speaker after speaker who had joyfully fleshed out the real Hillary everyone truly needed to know, the real Hillary whose stories brought tears of sympathy and admiration to everyone who listened as her lifetime of making lives better for others was being unspooled.
“In the spring of 1971, I met a girl,” the former president opened his story of the real Hillary to enthusiastic applause. “She had thick blond hair, big glasses. Wore no makeup. And she exuded this strength of self-possession I found magnetic,” the former president said. Clinton would go further on to spend the next forty-two minutes doing what no one else had done in history before: a former president telling the attention-grabbing story of his spouse who’s seeking to become president (see full text of speech).
Weeks —- even months before Tuesday night, I’d expressed fears about whether Clinton still had it enough to pull off the kind of rare accomplishment he did on behalf of President Barack Obama in 2012 when he made the president’s re-election case for him better than he did himself. Clinton’s convention speech in Charlotte was widely credited for the bounce Obama got in the polls. For that speech, Obama nicknamed Clinton “Secretary of Explaining Stuff.”
But that was a speech of a different sort, rooted mainly in policy and politics. The one looming ahead for the former president on behalf of his wife in Philadelphia was going to be an emotional one, with dollops of policy and politics thrown in for good measure, and all aimed at reversing the wrong notions built around her by an army of implacable haters. My fears were further compounded by the fact that Clinton who had grown increasingly thin and gaunt and less energetic because of his vegan diet, had experienced many uneven performances on the campaign trail while surrogating for his wife during the primaries.
In the end, Clinton proved that he’s still the man both his admirers and adversaries love and respect respectively. His immense political and oratorical gifts are largely intact. The great political charmer still has game. And plenty of it.