CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Here strode Bill Clinton onto the national convention stage once again, the Democratic man for all reasons.
Twelve years out of office but still and always ready to be needed, he took to prime time as master explainer and policy clarifier, party morale booster, voice of experience, earnest economics instructor, hoarse whisperer to the middle class and empathetic testifier for President Barack Obama, who came to the Democratic National Convention arena on Wednesday night to watch as the former commander in chief placed his name in nomination.
"Fellow Democrats, we are here to nominate a president, and I’ve got one in mind," Clinton began, getting right to it after less than a minute of smiles and lip-biting as he basked in applause. Rolling through a litany of "I want to nominate a man" riffs, he said he wants to "nominate a man who is cool on the outside but burns for America on the inside," adding soon after, "and by the way, after last night, I want to nominate a man who had the good sense to marry Michelle Obama."
Clinton was not in a rambling mood, but a direct and fast one, burrowing into the theme of what he saw as the polarizing nature of the Republican Party. Politics, he said, "does not have to be a blood sport." He talked about how he grew up not hating Republicans the way Republicans hate Obama.
He mentioned how President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock to promote school integration in 1957, and how he was honored to work "with both President Bushes" after national disasters, and how they concentrated on "solving problems and seizing opportunities and not fighting all the time." What works "in the real world," he said, "is cooperation." One of the main reasons the nation ought to reelect Obama, Clinton said, is he is still committed to working not only with Republicans, but also with several Clinton allies. "Heck," he said, "he even appointed Hillary."
Clinton was the first former president in U.S. history to deliver a nominating speech, and he seized the moment with his physical presence diminished from a vegan diet and past heart trouble but his symbolic presence growing larger and his popularity soaring to all-time highs. Polls show him with a 69 percent approval rating, about 18 points higher than Obama’s.
Twenty-four hours earlier, some former aides who thought they would be helping Clinton with the final polishing and prepping of his speech were saying that they had not heard from him or seen a single page of his copy. Nothing new there - that was in keeping with Clinton’s habitual work-it-until-the-last-minute style. Nor was it unexpected that the Obama team was able to go over it with Clinton and do fact-checking only on the day of the address.
Even at the party’s convention in Denver four years ago, when the relationship between Obama and Clinton was at its nadir in the wake of Obama’s defeat of Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary election, the former president was essentially given free rein in his prime-time speech; Obama declared beforehand that Clinton could say whatever he wanted. Then, it was a matter of the Obama team realizing that it could not control him even if it wanted to. This time, because Obama sought him out for the assignment, there was more implicit faith that he would come through.
Many themes that Clinton would weave through his address Wednesday had been touched on in various smaller ways the night before in speeches that the Obama team vetted, including the addresses of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who had worked for Clinton and Obama; Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick, a friend and close ally of Obama’s; and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who with his keynote speech burst into national prominence with a confident and engaging style that reminded some of Obama’s own keynote breakthrough in 2004. And some Clinton themes will no doubt be reiterated Thursday night by Obama.
But Clinton’s mission was singular and not without dangers. He had to bring the full Bill Clinton but not too much of Bill Clinton - a delicate balance for the Big Guy. He had to lift the rhetoric, clarify the choice in a way that an autoworker in Toledo could connect to - and do it without appearing to elbow into the president’s territory, let alone overshadow him. The expectation going in, Emanuel said, was that Clinton would be "more political and a little edgier" than Obama, whose mission was more to bring the "visionary piece."
In an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams taped before the speech, Clinton took note of another danger in this new social media world - the fact that any slip-up could go viral and that a partial phrase could be edited into an attack ad. He said his answer was to "try to minimize your vulnerability to that without just turning the talk into mush, just another hot-air, gas-bag rhetoric-filled talk. So I tried to do that. I tried to be very explanatory, very straightforward with the American people in this speech and still not make it vulnerable to being clipped in a way that could undermine the president I support and the ideas I believe in."
This was the ninth consecutive convention speaking role for Clinton, dating to 1980, when the young Arkansas governor, about to face the most devastating loss of his career in Ronald Reagan’s landslide over Jimmy Carter, took to the stage in New York to discuss issues affecting the states. Four years later, after he had won back the governorship, he was given a lesser role at the 1984 convention in San Francisco, brought out to extol the virtues of Harry S. Truman.
Clinton’s next appearance, at the 1988 convention in Atlanta, is the one that offers the sharpest comparisons and contrasts with his performance Wednesday. Like this time, his assignment then was to place the party standard-bearer’s name into nomination. Then and now, he was asked to do so alone, and in 20 minutes; more commonly there are a series of shorter nominating speeches. For the 1988 speech, as for tonight’s, word spread beforehand that Clinton was obsessed with his mission, staying up through the night to comb for material and write and rewrite on yellow pads in his left-handed scrawl, sketching out early drafts.
Hillary Clinton then told friends that she had never seen him work so hard on a speech; his secretary was so worn out by his effort that she required medical treatment for exhaustion. All of it led up to a disaster - the lights in the arena were too bright; the delegates were paying no attention; aides to the nominee, Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, had larded the speech with last-minute inserts. Clinton, aware that he was bombing, kept going, blood draining from his face; anchorman Tom Brokaw lamented to his NBC audience that "we have to be here, too"; television microphones picked up someone shouting "Get the hook," until Clinton drew the largest applause of the night by uttering the welcome words, "In closing."
He survived, of course, to become president four years later, and serve two terms, and overcome an impeachment, and continue even through his post-presidency cycle of loss and recovery, up and down and up again, that now finds him, at age 66, demonstrably up, with growing public nostalgia for the good-old days of the booming 1990s, and with Democrats, including Obama, turning to him for a bit of magic.
Clinton has made himself so available in other forums - both joint fundraisers with Obama and a series of political spots that have been appearing in key swing states for weeks - that the Obama team believed it had enough cushion to absorb even a less than sterling Clinton performance.