President Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was a travelogue and a love poem, taking the audience — and the rest of America — on his journey through meeting and wooing Hillary Rodham. It was his twist on the traditional spiel by the candidate’s spouse, who is there to remind everyone that the person they are nominating is actually a real human being.
And, Clinton being Clinton, it was overstuffed and detail-laden, going through the Clintons’ history year by year...
...with one very obvious exception.
The 1998 portion of this speech should be interesting....— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) July 27, 2016
There was no 1998 portion of the speech. Clinton covered 1997, when Chelsea Clinton started college, then said, literally, “Now fast-forward,” and launched into the events of 1999.
That meant one of the darkest chapters of the Clintons’ political careers and, presumably, personal lives — when Bill Clinton had oral sex with intern Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office, lied about it under oath, and was impeached — was entirely absent from the speech. Fast-forward indeed.
Clinton got up onstage on Tuesday night to support his wife. Referencing what must be one of the more humiliating periods of her life, just as she was formally nominated to be the first woman president of the United States, could have come off as jarring and graceless. Even a tactful allusion — one that said, essentially, he hadn’t always been a model husband — could easily have seemed like he was building himself up by tearing her down.
But this was the difficult task Clinton faced by giving a traditional spousal speech: He had to tell the story of one of the best-known marriages in America, a marriage split by a nationally televised drama about sex and infidelity and power, while constructing a political argument about one of America’s most disliked politicians.
Bill Clinton’s speech was very similar to Ann Romney’s. Really.
The arc of Bill Clinton’s speech is familiar, because it’s the same story — with a few more policy details — that Ann Romney told in 2012 and Michelle Obama told in 2008.
Boy meets girl. Boy marries girl, with a humorous anecdote or two about the vicissitudes of young love. Boy and girl start a family. The spouse admires the candidate’s character and commitment. The couple undergoes some kind of difficulty that, in the end, only makes them stronger.
“A storybook marriage?” Ann Romney said in 2012. “No, not at all. What Mitt Romney and I have is a real marriage.”
In both cases, after less personal sections with a bit more relevance to politics — Romney talked about her husband’s business, Obama about her husband’s community organizing — both spouses underlined that they truly know this person and are uniquely capable of vouching for his character.
“The Barack Obama I know today is the same man I fell in love with 19 years ago,” Michelle Obama said in 2008.
“It has been 47 years since that tall, kind of charming young man brought me home from our first dance,” said Ann Romney in 2012, closing with: “He will take us to a better place, just as he took me home safely from that dance.”
On Tuesday, Bill Clinton struck the same note:
I have lived a long, full, blessed life. It really took off when I met and fell in love with that girl in the spring of 1971. … For this time, Hillary is uniquely qualified to seize the opportunities and reduce the risks we face, and she is still the best darn change-maker I have ever known.
But he had the unique difficulty of telling a story that Americans know much better.
Ann Romney had to show the audience that her husband really cared about people. Michelle Obama had to prove that she and Barack were regular, everyday Americans like everyone else. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton’s message was something closer to awe: Can you believe, he seemed to ask, that my wife did all this?
Alluding to 1998 might have fit firmly into that framework. It could have reminded Americans of what Hillary Clinton went through — and why her popularity jumped 10 percentage points during that period.
But it also would have made the speech all about Bill — when, perhaps for the first time in his career, he was giving a speech that was barely about himself at all.
As it was, there was just one tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it allusion. “You should elect her because she will never quit when the going gets tough,” Clinton said. “She will never quit on you.”
He went on to talk about coal miners in West Virginia. He could just as easily have been talking about himself.