His voice is weaker. His right hand occasionally trembles. His stamina for 90-minute orations is no longer Castro-esque. (Then again, neither is Fidel’s.) But Bill Clinton showed Tuesday night that he can still inspire the Democratic party faithful and connect with average Americans beyond the Beltway bubble and cultural elites.
With his wife’s presidential candidacy endangered by the widespread perception that she is unlikable and untrustworthy, the 42nd president meticulously rebuilt the case for a President Hillary Clinton by reciting, slowly yet steadily, a string of anecdotes that wrote a very different biography of the woman he met at the law school library more than four decades ago.
Hillary Clinton has admitted, in an uncharacteristic moment of public self-reflection this year, that she’s not a natural politician or a fluid public speaker. Her husband, for all of his flaws that we all know all too well, is a natural. And his skills, diminished slightly with age but still daunting, were on display at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Many of Bill Clinton’s critics say his public life is all about Bill ~ sort of the rap against his former friend and longtime admirer Donald Trump. But for 40 minutes on the second night of the Democratic convention, Bill Clinton kept the focus on Hillary. And if the biography was a bit sanitized (none of the “bimbo eruptions”), it was heart-felt and detailed. Anecdote by anecdote, it built a case for a caring woman who gets things done.
Bill Clinton credited Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, and the WSJ.
Does he know which convention he’s attending? Very, very smart. #DemsInPhilly
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) July 27, 2016
You always forget how effective Bill Clinton is until he speaks
— Jonathan Allen (@jonallendc) July 27, 2016
“I gotta get this right.” He didhttps://t.co/5CVtqtjJ8s
— Ron Fournier (@ron_fournier) July 27, 2016
And as the speech reached its denouement, the former president faced head-on the “lock her up” iconography on display at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
To Bill Clinton, if not the Hillary skeptics, the Cleveland Clinton is bogus. Hillary Clinton has two images, her husband said: “One is real. The other is made up.”
“You nominated the real one,” Bill Clinton concluded, as if anyone was in doubt where he stood.
Clinton critics will be quick to dismiss his oration as another performance from a master showman, the man who allegedly could cry from one eye for the cameras. The hard-core Hillary doubters will never be sated or satisfied.
CNN: Bill Clinton humanizes Hillary
MSNBC: Bill Clinton humanizes Hillary
Fox News: Fornicator lies about murderess#DemsInPhilly
— Rex Huppke (@RexHuppke) July 27, 2016
One longtime Clinton fan, Donald Trump, has even changed his opinion of the man whose candidacy and foundation he once generously supported:
Trump tonight: Bill Clinton is “overrrated.”
Trump in 2014: Bill Clinton is “a terrific guy.”
Trump in 2013: Bill Clinton is “terrific.”
— Donny Ferguson (@DonnyFerguson) July 27, 2016
Overrated or terrific, Tuesday was a historic day. For the first time, a major political party in America nominated a woman as its candidate for president. Indeed, it was history. But, for the sake of the general election, Tuesday was more about her story.
I held my first “movie night” for my Chinese journalism grad students on Sunday night. After considering a few journalism-related classics (you can probably guess which they are), I chose one that highlights the best of journalism: “All the President’s Men.” It’s not just a journalism movie, of course. It’s a great detective story and an all-around outstanding movie with crisp writing, superb acting and tension-inducing directing. “All the President’s Men” is important journalism history. It’s also important American history. But I discovered as I played the video that many of the uniquely American topics (and 1970s cultural norms) contained in the movie were difficult to understand for my Tsinghua University students. So, in addition to playing the movie with English subtitles (do you realize how quickly Dustin Hoffman speaks, with that nasal accent of his?), I occasionally paused the movie for verbal annotations. Here are some of the important points I needed to explain to the students:
- Why Ben Bradlee and many American journalists curse a lot
- How Ben Bradlee cursed on live national TV when I hosted him as a speaker at a National Press Club luncheon in 2005
- What kind of a boss Ben Bradlee was to my wife Pam Tobey
- Who Deep Throat was and what motivated him to leak
- Where the real Bob Woodward/Mark Felt garage was located
- How the movie’s producers created a replica of the Washington Post’s newsroom in Hollywood for the movie — and the Post newsroom looked exactly the same when my wife Pam began working there in 1984
- Why reporters call the targets of their stories for comment before publishing the story
- Why it was unethical when Carl Bernstein called the secretary in the Miami prosecutor’s office and pretended he was someone he was not
- Why Watergate motivated me (and the entire Woodstein generation) to become reporters
- Why all of the editors in the Post’s budget meetings were men
- What a manual typewriter is (or was) and why they were all over the newsroom
- Why I took Mrs. Wolin’s typing class at Central High when everybody said that typing was for girls who wanted to become secretaries. (Of course, I wanted to learn to type so I could become a reporter.)
- Who Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are
- What the movie “Deep Throat” was about and why Woodward’s editor chose it as a code name for Mark Felt
- What John Mitchell was talking about when he said Katharine Graham would get a certain part of anatomy caught in a wringer
- What a “creep” means and why CREEP became the acronym for the Committee to Re-elect the President
- Why so many people smoked in public spaces
- Who John F. Kennedy was and why his photo was in Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate
- The fact that JFK and his brother Bobby were assassinated
- Why the Vietnam War was so unpopular and why American society was torn apart by war, riots and civil rights struggles
- What the Pentagon Papers are
- Richard Nixon’s unique definition of “plumbers”
- Who Daniel Ellsberg is and why he had a psychiatrist
- Who George Wallace and Arthur Bremer were and how Woodward worked with Felt on stories about the Wallace assassination attempt
- Who the anti-Castro Cubans in Miami are
- What the Bay of Pigs is/was
- The long and sordid history of CIA scandals
- Why there is tension between the FBI and the CIA
- Why Nixon hated and feared the Kennedys
- What Chappaquiddick was
- Why George McGovern asked Tom Eagleton to leave the ticket in ’72
- Why Nixon wanted to run against McGovern and not Ted Kennedy or Edmund Muskie
- Why Ed Muskie “cried” in New Hampshire
- What a “Canuck” is
Any suggestions for my next American journalism movie night?