Bill Clinton’s love letter to Hillary was sweet and cringeworthy, and at times it was like one of those overlong wedding toasts that makes you want to eat the flowers. But I get what he was trying to do. And maybe it worked.
“In the spring of 1971, I met a girl…”
That’s how America’s pre-eminent aw-shucks orator launched his evening serenade. Bill Clinton’s love letter to Hillary was sweet and cringeworthy, and at times it was like one of those overlong wedding toasts that makes you want to eat the flowers. But I get what he was trying to do. And maybe it worked.
As I wrote yesterday, tens of millions of voters – most notably, the millennials – don’t have a clue about Hillary’s career, or about who she really is. They think she has always been 68, an elusively shady character who has seemingly spent her life fiddling with email, dodging Benghazi attacks, and grooving with Goldman Sachs.
That’s where Bill came in. Nobody knows her life arc better than him. The aspiring First Gentleman (or First Dude, or Spouse-in-Chief, or whatever he’d be called) doesn’t have the rhetorical chops of yore, but this guy still knows how to tell a story. This one was elegaic, corny, nostalgic. It was deeply humanizing, which was the whole point.
Hillary was just “a girl” at Yale in 1971. Rachel Maddow was highly offended by that descriptive, but hey, that’s how a southern boy would’ve talked in 1971. Hillary liked wearing “a long white flowery skirt.” He tried to charm her, she resisted, “I turned red, and she laughed that big laugh of hers.” After they hooked up, she took him home to Illinois, where he learned that she’d been schooled in social justice by her Methodist minister.
Bill tried to spend more time with her, but she was more interested in doing good. She took a summer internship working with migrant workers. She got so involved with children’s issues, she took an extra year of law school so that she could work with the kids some more. She went down to Alabama to launch a legal challenge on segregated white academies. She went to south Texas to help register Mexican-American voters. She went to South Carolina to help jailed teenage black kids. This was all before she and Bill got hitched in ’75. They lived in a tiny house, 1100 square feet with an attic fan. Chelsea was born after mom’s “water broke,” and we can all attest that this is the first nominee in history whose water broke.
Bill was telling all this verrry slowwwly, and it was kinda like being forced to sit on an ole couch and ogle a friend’s fading photo albums. On the other hand, this was probably new info for a lot of people who needed to hear it. The subtext was obvious: Hillary wasn’t born semi-old. She was on the case, doing selfless work, at a time when young Donald Trump was in the pursuit of self with a boost from daddy’s bucks.
“I married my best friend,” said Bill. Now he was on tricky terrain, given all that we know about that marriage – or at least about Billy’s wayward ways, capped by the ministrations of an intern of barely legal age. Twitter filled in those details last night, the usual snarkfest. And I couldn’t help noticing that when Bill finally pushed his chronology to the late ’90s, he skipped from 1997 to 1999. I suppose he was referencing the ’98 impeachment crisis at the outset of his serenade, when he said that he and Hillary have been “walking and talking and laughing…in good times and bad, through joy and heartache.”
Feel free to condemn their marriage with no help from me. It’s a matter of record that he publicly humiliated her in ’98, and those who view that as a deal-breaker probably aren’t Clinton voters anyway. Truth is, people sustain their marriages for all kinds of reasons – unlike Trump, who has had three – and by now it’s clear that the Clintons do have, if nothing else, a thriving political and intellectual partnership. He thinks she is “smart and strong and caring,” and she thinks the same of him. It’s a partnership not unlike the one that famously joined Franklin and Eleanor. The rest, at this point, is none of our business.
Bill talked policy a bit last night – Hillary brought an Israeli pre-school program to Arkansas, Hillary in ’79 worked to expand health care “to isolated farm and mountain areas” – but he reined in his wonky instincts. He was there to serve as a character reference: “Making change can be hard and boring. This woman has never been satisifed with the status quo of anything. She has always wanted to move the ball forward. That. Is. Just. Who. She. Is…The best darn change-maker I have ever known.”
So is Hillary a “bitch” (the word celebrated on so many T-shirts at the Republican convention), or is she a dedicated public servant still infused by her youthful ideals? Bill said the Republicans reduced her to a “cartoon.” Bill said that voters have to make a choice: “One (version) is real. The other is made up. You just have to decide which is which, my fellow Americans.” And by choosing correctly, “your children and grandchildren will bless you if you do.”
That was his wistful closing line. There was a time when Democrats routinely hailed his charisma (a national party guy said to me once, “It’s like being in a recording session with Elvis – you know you’re going to be overshadowed”), but all things must pass. Bill himself said that he has “more yesterdays than tomorrows,” and this year he has been a sporadic embarrassment on the trail. All the more reason to deliver last night’s love letter, when it was needed most.