In theory, it’s a daunting challenge: introduce millions of people to someone they’ve already known for years. Bill Clinton took on the challenge anyway at the Democratic National Convention last night, at least in part because he believes many of us don’t really know Hillary Clinton, so much as we know a caricature painted by her critics.
In Philadelphia, towards the end of the former president’s remarks in which he walked his audience through a lifetime of Hillary Clinton’s hard work and achievements, Bill Clinton asked how anyone can reconcile her record with what Republicans have said about her. “You can’t,” he said. “One is real, the other is made up.”
“The real one had done more positive change-making before she was 30 than many public officials do in a lifetime in office. The real one, if you saw her friend Betsy Ebeling vote for Illinois today has friends from childhood through Arkansas, where she has not lived in more than 20 years, who have gone all across America at their own expense to fight for the person they know.“The real one has earned the loyalty, the respect and the fervent support of people who have worked with her in every stage of her life, including leaders around the world who know her to be able, straightforward and completely trustworthy.“The real one calls you when you’re sick, when your kid’s in trouble or when there’s a death in the family. The real one repeatedly drew praise from prominent Republicans when she was a senator and secretary of state.“So what’s up with it? Well, if you win elections on the theory that government is always bad and will mess up a two-car parade, a real change-maker represents a real threat. So your only option is to create a cartoon, a cartoon alternative, then run against the cartoon. Cartoons are two- dimensional, they’re easy to absorb. Life in the real world is complicated and real change is hard.”
The point of rhetoric like this is to serve several functions at once. First, obviously, is to paint Clinton in a favorable light and push back against GOP criticism. Second, it creates a contrast: Clinton has devoted her adult life to helping others, which is practically the opposite of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Third, Bill Clinton is no doubt aware of the public’s appetite for change, so he positioned Hillary Clinton as someone who’s never satisfied with the status quo.
At one point, he added, “She’s insatiably curious, she’s a natural leader, she’s a good organizer, and she’s the best darn change-maker I ever met in my entire life.”
And finally, the speech was a straightforward case that, despite perceptions, Hillary Clinton is someone who’s spent a lifetime earning the respect of those around her. She’s a person of warmth and compassion, not a two-dimensional villain.
In some ways, the speech was a risk, not because it was a deliberately corny love letter from a husband to a wife, but because Bill Clinton is an imperfect messenger. When the former president walked us through Hillary Clinton’s adult life, from the spring of 1971 through today, he skipped over the events of 1998.
Early in the speech, he made a brief reference to their lifetime together, in “good times and bad, through joy and heartbreak,” and it struck me as a subtle reminder about the former president’s personal misdeeds.
But in the end, Bill Clinton nevertheless remains his wife’s most enthusiastic advocate, telling endearing stories about the official Democratic presidential nominee, and offering something specific her detractors on the right have long tried to deny: a narrative about Hillary Clinton that resembles reality.