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Clinton's convention speech reminds Democrats that he's a star

Former President Clinton slyly criticizes the GOP and praises Obama. But his is a tough act for the current president to follow.

September 06, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Television Critic
  • No matter history's final assessment of his presidency, from stump or gussied-up stage, Bill Clinton knows how to give a speech.
No matter history's final assessment of his presidency, from stump… (EPA )

In the days and hours leading up to Bill Clinton's address before the 2012 Democratic National Convention, many analysts opined that the former president was there to remind the faithful what it means to be a Democrat. Wednesday's convention made that task a little easier.

It was a day ruled by in-house arguments over the inclusion of God and the designation of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the party platform, a day in which the warm-up speeches were given by an assortment of characters including activist nun Sister Simone Campbell, Rush Limbaugh slander victim Sandra Fluke and senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren, the party's current plain-spoken darling.

They called for policies based on Christian kindness, they called for reproductive choice, they called for a level economic playing field, none of which they said a Mitt Romney presidency would provide.

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Then, from a convention hall so full the TV audience was informed in worrisome detail that the fire marshal's ordered some of the doors closed, the Democrats called for Clinton.

For a man who ended his presidency under a cloud of scandal and personal doubt, whose appetites often threatened to be his physical and marital undoing, he looked pretty good, with a silver mane to rival Ted Danson's and a post-heart-disease vegan slenderness that lent him a new buoyancy. That he was standing before shouting throngs of the devoted certainly did not hurt.

The first baby boomer president, Clinton has achieved what many of his peers long for: Time appears to be on his side. Whereas the Presidents Bush were noticeable only in their absence last week, Clinton was put up against the season opener of the NFL.

With good reason. No matter history's final assessment of his presidency, from stump or gussied-up stage, the man knows how to give a speech.

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His familiar Arkansas tones picking up where Warren's native Oklahoma twang left off, Clinton immediately took careful aim at last week's Republican convention. Motioning for the crowds to settle down, he announced, "We are here to nominate a president, and I've got one in mind."

He then proceeded to talk about Barack Obama, "a man who's cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside," as if he knew and actually liked him — something many of the Republican speakers, including secret weapon Clint Eastwood, rarely got around to doing for Romney.

It was the first of many, often sly, often openly, critical references to the Romney-Ryan campaign, though early on Clinton was careful to target the "right-wing factions that have taken over the party," rather than Republicans in general. Despite disagreeing with many of their positions, Clinton said, he could never bring himself to hate Republican leaders the way "so many of them seem to hate the president." He then went out of his way to praise every Republican president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush.

Whether that's what it means to be a Democrat, that is most certainly what it means to be a successful politician.

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Just as the first lady on Tuesday night supported her husband with words of personal insight and wifely admiration, Clinton positioned himself as the president's political wingman. He was the imposing big brother willing to say the things that from Obama would seem like political justifications.

That the economy is actually better than it was four years ago. That Obama, never a quick-fix guy, had built a solid base of a just and healthy recovery and, more important, that no president could undo in four years the economic "free fall" that Obama inherited.

The narrative that emerged from the Republican convention, Clinton said, was that "we left him a total mess, he hasn't cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in."

Moving from easy bullet points to statistical specifics, Clinton rolled for more than three-quarters of an hour, by turns fond and fierce. And then, after an embrace from the president, he was gone, leaving the starry-eyed convention-goers with just two nagging questions: How on earth would Obama top that, and is it time we all went vegan?


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