After Bill Clinton’s speech at the 2012 Democratic convention, President Obama nicknamed him the Secretary of Explaining Stuff. For his 2016 effort on his wife’s behalf, the 42nd president could be dubbed the Character Witness in Chief.
In a subdued and frequently intimate address, Bill Clinton made the case for the newly official Democratic presidential nominee by telling the story of their life together. His theme: Hillary may have moved behind the scenes for most of their 41 years of marriage, but she displayed from the start an unrivaled knack for wrenching improvements in public policy for those in need.
“She’s the best darned change-maker I’ve ever met in my entire life,” he said.
The address was an entirely different breed from the stemwinder Clinton gave four years ago, which was considered a highlight of that Democratic gathering in Charlotte. That speech, though honeyed and down-home in Clinton’s inimitable style, amounted to an exhaustive explication of Obama’s agenda and what concrete benefits it offered Americans — and why, point by point, Republican counterarguments fell short. That is, it was a speech from the head.
Maybe no surprise that for his partner in a sometimes-troubled, larger-than-life, culture-pacing marriage, Clinton drew instead from the heart.
Notably, he never uttered the name of her Republican opponent. Rather, Clinton devoted his 45 minutes on stage entirely to a testimonial depicting a lifetime of public spiritedness often expressed in nonpublic ways.
The approach helped the former president sidestep an awkward fact of this election season. Hillary Clinton had to lurch left over the last year to answer the surprisingly stiff challenge she faced from the liberal movement candidacy of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. And in doing so, she was compelled to disavow much of the business-friendly moderation that defined Bill Clinton’s presidency. Indeed, Sanders holdouts have made a noisy show in Philadelphia of demonstrating they aren’t satisfied that Hillary has sufficiently renounced the free-trading, tough-on-crime, Wall Street-deregulating instincts of her husband’s era. And Bill Clinton himself has sometimes looked a bit lost in his own party when confronted by the demands of its new activists, at one point this spring veering off script at a campaign event to angrily confront Black Lives Matter protesters.
So on Tuesday, the former president stuck to a simpler pitch. From their earliest days together at Yale Law School in the 1970s through her tenure as Secretary of State, Clinton said, the Democratic nominee has focused on improving lives. “I can tell you this. If you were sitting where I’m sitting and you heard what I have heard at every dinner conversation, every lunch conversation, on every lone walk, you would say this woman has never been satisfied with the status quo in anything,” he said. “She always wants to move the ball forward. That is just who she is.”
He hit the high points of her C.V. but also delved into obscure efforts, like when she imported to Arkansas an Israeli preschool program that taught low-income parents how to become their children’s first teachers. “Now, 20 years of research has shown how well this program works to improve readiness for school and academic achievement,” he said. “There are a lot of young adults in America who have no idea Hillary had anything to do with it who are enjoying better lives because they were in that program.”
This presidential race features two historically unpopular candidates. Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton mused her reputation has suffered for being held to a different standard than other public figures. Bill Clinton expanded on that take in his speech, declaring that “a real change-maker represents a real threat,” one that Republicans have sought to cripple by selling a “cartoon alternative” of the Real Hillary. He aimed to answer it from his singular vantage as her closest partner.