To begin with, let’s agree that Bill Clinton did not give the speech of his life.
For once, he gave the speech of Hillary’s life. Not that he didn’t play a role, but it wasn’t the starring role this time. It was the first-spouse role. And so it begins.
“In the spring of 1971,” Bill Clinton says on Hillary’s big night, “I met a girl.”
It’s the oldest story in the world, told and retold and told again. In the spring of the year that time began, or so the bible would have us believe, Adam met a girl, and a million plot lines were born.
But in this boy-meets-girl, when the rakish boy at Yale Law is suddenly made too shy to tap the girl wearing the owlish glasses on the shoulder, it’s not just any cute meet. It’s Bill and Hillary, Billary, whose love story, we’ve always been reliably told, has relied less on love than on ambition and opportunism, as if anyone really knows.
All marriages are mysteries, but few have offered up such public humiliation suffered by a would-be president. And so this, the most famous political marriage of our time, desperately needed a reframing. For those who don’t trust Hillary, and the polls tell us that most people do not, it didn’t begin with Hillary. It began with Billary.
And so Bill would take the stage, as he always does. And though there is every reason to mistrust him, we get, well, seduced by the story he tells and how he tells it. It’s one of his many talents. When Hillary says she’s not a natural politician, like her husband or Barack Obama, this is what she means. When Bill Clinton spends the night saying that Hillary’s willingness to do the hard work of governing is the more important job, that was the story he came to tell.
The job of this convention, of course, is to make people trust Hillary Clinton, at least a little. If her untrustworthiness numbers improve, she will almost certainly become the first woman president.
And so Michelle Obama, in what will surely be the speech of the week, tells us to trust Clinton with our children’s future, because she does. And Bernie Sanders says you can trust Clinton to continue – or at least not quash – the revolution, because he does.
But it was up to Bill Clinton to seal the deal. It’s what he does. His 2012 convention speech famously helped to rescue Barack Obama. He has rescued himself – often with Hillary’s help – too many times to count. If Bill, who is famously all too human can’t humanize his wife, then no one can.
Thus it is that a boy met a girl in the spring of ’71. And he chased her – no, he stalked her – for years while the girl was off doing amazing things, the do-gooder stuff that a certain kind of person does, registering Mexican-American voters, investigating segregation in the Deep South, working on children’s issues. She’s a change-maker, as Bill would call her, changing more things, he said, by the time she was 30 than most politicians do in a lifetime.
From the beginning, he said, he was awed by how smart she was, by how much she longed to get important things done, and, in what was a love letter to his wife, by how much he admired her.
Finally, we’re told, after Hillary twice refused his marriage proposal, there was a marriage. There was a baby. There was a life full of ups and downs. In the telling, the camera goes to Chelsea, who smiles, and back to Bill, who relishes each detail. If that’s not love, it’s close enough.
And if Bill, in his year-to-year tour of their lives and careers, somehow skipped much of 1998, the year of Monica and of impeachment, he did make the promise that “She will never quit on you,” because he knew that we would know what he meant. She had never quit on him.
Clinton knew the ground he had to cover. He had to make Hillary human, so he told the story of the mother on her hands and knees in Chelsea’s college dorm room finding one more drawer to put the liner paper in. He told the story of Clinton’s years in the Senate, her years as Secretary of State, detailing her successes (no mention of emails) and selling the notion that, in a year in which voters are begging for something new, that Hillary always wants to move the ball forward.
It was “Black Lives Matter” night at the convention, which explains the need to move the ball forward. The Democratic Party has moved forward from the Clinton years and DOMA and punishing prison sentences and breaks for big banks. Hillary Clinton spent the entire primary season trying to make her campaign a bridge to the mid-21st century – if, as she was often reminded, a bridge lined with dollars from Goldman Sachs.
But for Bill, the job was not to reclaim his legacy. It was to make the case that the Fox News version of Hillary, the GOP-convention version of Hillary, the Benghazi-committee version of Hillary was “a cartoon,” a two-dimensional caricature of the person he knows.
“How does this square with the things that you heard at the Republican convention?” he asked. “What is the difference in what I told you and what they said? How do you square it? You can’t. One is real, the other is made up. You have to decide which is which.”
The real one, he would say, is the one the Democrats just nominated for president. And if you believe him, you’ll probably give Hillary Clinton a chance Thursday night in her acceptance speech to see if she can prove him right.