PHILADELPHIA – Bill Clinton has been in big spots before, asked to give an important speech on behalf of someone else. Sometimes he comes through, sometimes not so much.
But he never had been asked to do so under the circumstances he faced Tuesday night. No one has.
Former presidents have spoken for other candidates; that happens every four years. Spouses have spoken on behalf of their partners. That, too, occurs with regularity. But never have the two been embodied in one.
And he pulled it off. Maybe he went on a little too long, maybe he’s a flawed messenger given his own personal history, maybe he wants this a little too much for the wife he owes so much.
But Tuesday night he gave the crowd in Wells Fargo Center and all of America a look at Hillary Clinton through his eyes, with as personal a history as anyone could want – beginning with his opening ad-ready declaration, “In the spring of 1971, I met a girl,” and reaching its climax with his fierce proclamation that she is “still the best darn change-maker I have ever known.”
Not only did he say all the right things on the day she became the first woman nominated by a major party to run as president, he did it convincingly, grinning and eyes twinkling as he recounted her exploits, doing gracefully for her what she cannot do for herself. It was the kind of speech political wives have been called on to make for their husbands, to humanize them, to add color to an outline drawn by opponents in black and white. It’s no secret that she needs that desperately.
This being Bill and Hillary Clinton, of course, not everyone is going to be convinced. They’ve been in our lives too long to change some minds.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton’s opponent this fall, likely summed up a lot of people’s feelings when he tweeted during the speech that “no matter how well he says it” and how much the media praises the speech, it was “highly overrated.”
It certainly was different from the “spouse” speech delivered for Trump, packed as it was with the kind of detail Melania Trump’s remarks lacked. Bill Clinton talked of the issues Hillary has embraced, the places she embraced them, the people she worked with to get things done. And he spoke of his courtship of her, the birth of their daughter, Chelsea, and the day they dropped her off at college.
In truth, he hasn’t been this good for a while. The last time he filled this role, for President Barack Obama when he was seeking a second term in 2012, Clinton was so successful that Obama memorably dubbed him the “secretary of explaining stuff.” But Clinton is a different man these days, at times frailer and more subdued. He’s also battled with Black Lives Matter demonstrators, and occasionally goes off script.
But not Tuesday night.
The truth is that he owes Hillary. A lot. She once changed her last name for him, stood by his side for him, was part of the famous two-for-one deal for him, set aside her own political dreams for him. But when he’s attempted to help her in the past, he’s been a mixed blessing at best.
In 2008, he cost her dearly in her first attempt at the presidency when he called Obama’s run a “fairy tale.” And his impromptu walk over to Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s plane in the Phoenix airport for a private talk last month, as the FBI was wrapping up its investigation into his wife’s email and private server, was damaging.
Bill Clinton acknowledged the skepticism that will greet his words in some quarters, asking rhetorically how the picture he sketched of her compares with the dark portrait painted by Republicans at their convention last week.
“One is real one, the other is made up,” he said. “You just have to decide which is which, my fellow Americans.”
It’s a variation of a question that this country has been wrestling with for 25 years. But this time, Bill Clinton had an answer.
“Earlier today,” he said, “you nominated the real one.”