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Bill Clinton’s DNC speech reframed himself as a supporting player in his wife’s life

He made the act of voting for a woman for president feel not historic but deeply familiar.

Democratic National Convention: Day Two
Bill Clinton delivered a speech in support of his wife, Hillary Clinton, at the Democratic National Convention.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The most remarkable thing about Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, the thing that made it the speech with the highest degree of difficulty at either convention so far, was who was delivering it.

I don’t mean that the man’s performance was especially remarkable. It was not Clinton at his finest. He’s clearly lost a bit of his old game, and we may come to remember his 2012 DNC defense of Barack Obama’s record as his last truly great speech.

No, what was remarkable was that this speech was being delivered by Bill Clinton, period.

Clearly, he’d been waiting decades to deliver a speech that would redefine and humanize his wife after years of attacks. And clearly he wanted to also use that speech to recast their marriage as a great love story rather than a tale of political opportunism.

But what’s often being missed — particularly from those who are a bit miffed that Clinton didn’t delve into policy (as he does so well) or make a more forthright appeal to working-class white men — is that Clinton was playing the role of the candidate’s spouse.

He was the guy there to show how amazing the woman he married is. And he was the guy there to humanize her, to show the depths of her love for both him and their child and grandchildren. Simply flipping the script of this convention on gender is already revealing just how much we associate the presidency and its pursuit with men.

Or, put another way, here was Bill Clinton, former president, tremendous orator, great politician — and he was depicting himself as the supporting player in the story of his wife.

And that was where his appeal to working-class white men lay — not in the text but in the subtext.

Clinton’s speech was a reminder to husbands of their love for their wives

If you’ll indulge me a personal anecdote, I think I can explain this better.

Recently, my mother was awarded with a school letter for her time spent in college athletics at her alma mater. When she was participating in college sports in the 1960s, it was considered a pursuit somewhat beneath women and thus not directly sanctioned by the school. Yet my mother and other women persisted and now, 50 years later, were receiving validation for what shouldn’t have to be seen as groundbreaking but was.

What I realized when my parents recounted the story of that weekend to me was that my father was almost more proud of the achievement than my mother was. The two of them had always presented a united front when my sister and I were growing up, but their narrative had always been focused on what my father was doing, from the very early days of their marriage to when they moved to rural South Dakota to purchase a pig farm, even after his father warned them not to.

For as much as I consider myself a feminist, and for as much as I love my mother, I discovered that it had been far, far too easy for me to simply buy into the notion of her as a supporting player in my father’s life, rather than someone building her own epic life story. And from there, I realized that my father had been her cheerleader all those years just as much as she had been his.

Sometimes I think, as a married millennial in his 30s who values a truly equal partnership with his wife, it’s easy to read into the relationships of our parents (especially the more socially conservative ones, like my parents’) the kind of repressive gender roles that many of us have tried to escape in our own marriages.

But none of that is true. Baby boomer husbands were just as excited for their wives’ success as I might be for mine. It’s the way society codes these narratives that has more obviously changed.

So when Bill Clinton stepped onto the stage and opened his speech — which mostly utilized a beautifully uncomplicated timeline structure that sneakily mirrored itself so it could double back — with, "In 1971, I met a girl," he wasn’t trying to convince those working-class white men to vote for his wife. He was trying to convince them to vote for their wives.

Bill Clinton made his wife’s accomplishment not just historic but familiar

That, after all, is the goal of any convention speech by a candidate’s spouse. Specificity matters. Anecdotes matter. And above all else, the sense that the candidate has been driven toward this moment in time for as long as the spouse has known her matters.

Put frankly, we’re as unused to seeing men in politics operate in this role, on this big a stage, as I was with the thought of my own father cheering on my own mother from the sidelines. There is a temptation among the young to think that we somehow invented the idea of gender equality or marriage as a partnership or (God help me) "wokeness."

But that’s not true, and that’s never been true. In the aggregate, we’ve become more welcoming to women in major political roles, but on an individual level, in our own lives, there are many, many more of us who have quietly been nodding alongside wives and mothers and sisters and daughters and friends, watching as they race off toward some unfamiliar new life and realizing all we can do is cheer.

The larger idea of the second night of the DNC wasn’t about Clinton’s record on foreign policy, or even her larger domestic policy goals. It was about her work with other women and with children, about the things she had done throughout her career where her husband — again, an ex-president — mostly stood back. It was about reclaiming this narrative not as their narrative or as his narrative, but as hers.

For Bill Clinton to have made the speech about policy, or even about defending his wife’s record, would have put the focus on him. It would have reminded listeners of how she first came on the scene as a player in his story, rather than letting us reimagine him as a player in hers.

The most potent idea in Clinton’s speech is the idea of "the real one." It sounds, a bit, like an advertising slogan. (For all I know, it is.) But it’s a powerful idea. Just as the women in our own lives are too often subsumed by the narratives of others, so, too, has Hillary Clinton been. So are you going to believe what others tell you? Or what her biggest cheerleader says?

It would be so easy to play up the historic nature of voting for the first woman president, to point out the shattering glass ceiling. And there has been that and will be more of that at this convention. But Bill Clinton’s task was different. It was not to make this moment seem historic, or unfamiliar, or alien. Instead, it was to make it seem deeply familiar, as familiar as the person sitting on the couch next to you.