Clinton’s speech: Yep, it was that good

Feschuk looks at the former president’s speech to the Democratic convention

When I was a boy, my Dad took me to a Buffalo Sabres game and let me bring along a friend, Trevor, who at the time was passionate about two things in life: hockey and talking. The kid never shut up. He was fun and kind and smart but he stopped talking, at most, a few times an hour. It was like being friends with an eight-track tape.

The opponent on the ice at Memorial Auditorium that night was the Edmonton Oilers. Trevor was psyched. You could tell he was psyched because he said, “I’m so psyched!” about 10,000 times. He was going to see Wayne Gretzky! He couldn’t stop talking about it. He even talked through the national anthems.

When Gretzky climbed over the boards for his first shift, I experienced the strangest sensation. I couldn’t quite place it at first but then, suddenly, I realized: silence. Trevor had stopped talking. His eyes were on Gretzky. His lips were still. He was caught up in watching a master at work.

I thought back to that night as I closed my laptop around 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Bill Clinton was ambling – I believe that was an amble; it may have been a mosey – to the podium at the Democratic National Convention. It was time to shut my (electronic) mouth, time to turn away from Twitter. It was time to watch a master at work.

Some 50 minutes later, after Clinton had received his love and his cheers and the presidential seal of approval (a nice, long hug), I skimmed through some of the tweets I’d missed. I was a little stunned. There were gripes about the length of the speech and claims that it lacked focus. There was bellyaching about a perceived overuse of statistics and fact. (I found it just a little amusing that many of these opinions were being expressed by journalists and academics – people who at other times can be relied upon to bitchify about a woeful lack of substance in most of today’s political speechmaking.)

If I can generalize – and I’m pretty sure I can – Democrats tend to be more dynamic and genuinely excited than their Republican counterparts when it comes to speaking in front of a crowd. They see speechmaking as a pastime akin to their sex lives: something to enjoy, to throw themselves into with abandon, to work with purpose towards a memorable moment. Whereas Republicans see speechmaking as a pastime akin to, well, to their sex lives: something to do while staring at a screen for three minutes and feeling ashamed.

Clinton is a tantric speechmaker. He speaks for twice as long as many, and much longer than most. And you could tell last night that even he knew his remarks were longer than the Obama camp would have preferred. Clinton is usually more than happy to nod slowly, bite that lower lip and soak up the praise of a rapturous audience. But on stage at the Democratic convention he treated the applause like a nuisance and hurried to resume speaking. A couple times he seemed on the verge of telling everyone to sit down and button it.

But listen: I’ve watched Clinton give a bad speech, and I’ve watched him ruin a good speech with a few bad moments. I’ve read transcripts of speeches where it’s pretty clear he was speaking for a long time simply because no one could stop him. But I’ve also watched his legendary address to 15,000 members of the Church of God in Christ in Memphis, and so many other memorable speeches over the years. When he is on, he is simply America’s greatest living political orator. Better than anyone. Better even than the current officeholder, America’s second black president. And last night, Bill Clinton was on.

It’s easy and fun to criticize, and easier and more rewarding still in our social-media age to snark. I ought to know: I’ve sent out some 6,500 tweets and not more than a handful have ranked much higher on the scale of eloquence than a Yo Mama joke. But I was still pretty perplexed by the minor current of criticism directed at the former president’s address.

Bill Clinton made an argument last night. He spoke gravely at times, and at other times like a professor. He threw in a folksy listen-up-y’all when needed. He used humour and colloquial language, but he also used numbers and studies. Clinton built a case for Barack Obama not by dismissing Mitt Romney but by respecting him – by taking the Republican proposals seriously and then taking the time to explain to voters why each, in his mind, represents an unwise or even potentially disastrous course for America. He punctured the Republican platform without being mean or mindless about it. He was the most gracious of any Democratic speaker towards Republicans. He was also the most devastating.

I watched every single speaker at last week’s Republican convention – yes, every one, and believe me: an old man interrogating a chair was far from that convention’s only back-away-slowly moment. But what’s more striking and important about those three days in Tampa was that not a single Republican bothered to mount a precise, logical takedown of the Obama administration. There was vitriol and there was rage and there were clip lines and there was praise for mothers and there was an amiable difference of opinion over whether the United States is the greatest nation on the face of the earth or the greatest nation in the history of the world.  But no one took the effort – and the time, because these things take time – to treat voters like grown-ups, explain both sides of the core issues of the day, and make an airtight, logical case for the Republican way forward.

Great speeches aren’t built from boilerplate and wordplay. They require substance and heart. The best speeches make an argument – an argument you can follow and remember and repeat. True, in a fragmented age, there are fewer moderates and fewer undecided voters to lure off the fence. But if anyone had doubts about Mitt Romney, if anyone was looking for a reason to give Obama another shot… well, Bill Clinton made a better case for four more years of Barack Obama than anyone else has, including the President himself.

He was a master of his craft, in his element, talking big, elegant circles around his opponents. Why would we have wanted that to end sooner?

 




Browse

Clinton’s speech: Yep, it was that good

  1. This comment was deleted.

    • I’m almost positive I wouldn’t call someone a serial rapist unless I had proof – or had personally been raped by him. Which applies to you?

      • I have no idea what was actually written by “deleted”, but the retort speaks for itself. Well played.

      • You brought up sex lives in your article, I brought up Clinton’s sex life and then provided proof like you asked for and both my comments were deleted. What’s up with that?

      • Actually, Bill is a big fan of Post Grape Nuts, making him a cereal grapist

        I hope that clears things up

  2. Are my comments being deleted because nothing must get in the way of Canadian Libs celebrating a sexual predator?

    • Isn’t that just ad hominem?

    • You see a question like that and you think, “gotta be YES, cuz otherwise, why would they ask it right?” But it’s for a pie piece, and you’re behind cuz they got the pink pie with “Street Car Named Desire”… and you see the person holding that little blue card staring at you, trying to put on a good poker face… but you’re all kids or, at the very least, not poker players so none of you *actually* have a poker face… and you think “Aha! They WANT me to think that it has to be YES… But maybe this is just one of those totally absurd questions they throw in to mess you up!”… so… ah crap… I don’t know, which is it TonyAdams?

    • Clinton is a sexual predator for getting a bl*w job from an of-age intern? Con cranks certainly have a distorted view of sex. Probably because they aren’t getting any. BTW, I don’t think she was forced to do it. She kept the ***-stained dress as a souvenir…

      • Yes that does make him a sexual predator. Plus his other sexual escapades which involved an abuse of authority. Clinton has many admirable traits, but he is indeed a sexual predator.

        Unless you think that a boss should be initiating this type of sexual contact with extremely junior subordinates. If you do, you should probably consult HR or a lawyer.

  3. Yup. Bubba was a beast. Obama was probably backstage mumbling “what the
    hell do I do now?”.
    To me, the more interesting part of the evening was watching the cameras pan
    the crowd while Elizabeth Warren was speaking. The crowd in the bowl was rapt
    and paying close attention. The fundies and fixers up in the boxes looked like
    someone was forcing them to eat prunes. Excellent.

    • She is very compelling. She has a future in politics, if she wants it.

  4. If I can generalize – and I’m pretty sure I can – Democrats tend to be more dynamic and genuinely excited than their Republican counterparts when it comes to speaking in front of a crowd. They see speechmaking as a pastime akin to their sex lives: something to enjoy, to throw themselves into with abandon, to work with purpose towards a memorable moment. Whereas Republicans see speechmaking as a pastime akin to, well, to their sex lives: something to do while staring at a screen for three minutes and feeling ashamed.

    That isn’t nice, Scott. That isn’t nice at all.

    I’m laughing anyway.

  5. Bill Clinton would have to be pretty good to be better than Obama. Some of Obama’s speeches are the best political ones I’ve ever heard. Between him, Clinton and Michelle Obama, the Democrats should do well out of their convention, even if the things are basically giant, week-long advertisements.

  6. I’m far from an unmitigated fan of Clinton’s, but I’ve always appreciated his reliance on evidence to defend policy, criticize opponents and evaluate programs. Also, he manages to cast his ideological goals in the same manner; generally tying them to specific, measurable benchmarks. It saddened me to watch him last night, in that such an approach seems outdated in the face of increasingly visceral and emotional appeals from all quarters of the political spectrum. But more seriously, was I the only one struck by the freak show audience? Democrats, we get it that you’re working mightily to be the party of inclusion. It’s admirable. But holy crap, your delegates looked like they’d been marched across the road from the Lowered Expectations Dating Club or something. And the close-ups of folks staring at their cheeseburger messiah with blissful vacancy was something I haven’t seen since watching footage of the acid-tripped audience at Woodstock. And at least they were mostly topless. (Not that I’m ungrateful for the garish garb they wore last night, just to be clear.) I’m not an attractive guy, to be fair, but if I was trying to fill a hall to sell my cause, I’d try to mute the sense that the entire organization is populated by Asperger’s card holders. America, or at least American Democrats, stop demanding freedom, prosperity and sensible government! Demand access to dentistry, barber shops, clothiers and diet soda.

    • LOL. No you were not the only one. I’m also glad I’m not the only one that noticed the freak show in the crowd.

      I guess that’s what you get when you show up at a bar and hand out free passes to anyone who happens to be there.

      • Gawd….now snobby !% wannabees are critiquing the audience!

        Who do you think the audience will most identify with…..ordinary looking people or the Repub sunday-go-to-meeting look?

        Good thing Jesus wasn’t as fussy as you two

        • Ordinary looking people. That’s why we thought it would be a good idea to show some.

          And in case you weren’t paying attention, half the crowd didn’t want Jesus there either.

          • Jesus didn’t need to be there….it’s Repubs that need the help

          • I think half the crowd thought they were Jesus.

        • Jesus would have run screaming from the room
          if that was first crowd he was faced with. (“Sweet Me! They’re all yours, Satan!!!!”)
          Even lepers had more style and elan than you might think, back in the day. And I’m pretty sure last night’s crew would have exhausted the supply of loaves and fishes by row 2.

          Look, I wouldn’t use an image of myself to champion anything but birth control, so I’m not snobbish. (And speaking of birth control, the whole Democrat stance on its availability is both needless and understandable at the same time, given their membership.) But if that crowd constitutes ordinary where you live, let me know where it is. I’d have a decent shot at realizing my dream of a polygamous compound (heck, if you tone down the Jesusy talk, I’d consider you for a junior wife on a probationary basis…)
          Anyway, last I checked this was a humour blog. Lighten up a bit.

          • I think you’d better read the New Testament….then you won’t make such dumb remarks in public again.

            Feschuk can also do serious.

          • Hey, if you’ve an axe to grind against lepers, I’d rather you do it elsewhere.

            As things stand, I’ve got you penciled in for far less foot massaging and lawn mowing than the other probationary junior wives, but you gotta drop the whole Jesus thing or the others will begin to question my leadership and judgement. It’s Hamilton, by the way, isn’t it?

          • Actually it’s an atheist from nr Windsor.

            So much for your leadership and judgement. LOL

            Ciao baby.

          • The outskirts of Windsor. *shudders* Well, I suppose all dreams require sacrifice, so Windsor it is. After I collect enough wives, we can always move to Dryden or some other more cosmopolitan place.

            But I don’t think you’re taking this whole polygamous clan thing seriously enough. It’s great that I’ve convinced you to renounce Jesus – that’ll keep the other junior probationary wives from griping too much. But if you’re serious about becoming a senior wife, you gotta be a little more demure and supportive. I don’t want to be harsh here, but seeing as how you hail from a land where Democrat convention attendees look good, you might want to adopt a bit more gratitude in the attitude.

  7. This might sound odd, but I think the best hope America has is for Obama to lose the election. Then the Republicans will put the economy in depression and create a huge backlash against their fanatical hard-right ideology.

    This should’ve happened when they caused the financial market meltdown in 2008. But the bailouts and stimulus spending fended off the worst ill effects. Now 4 years later and the neo-cons are back as if nothing ever happened.

    The stark reality is that the US economy is just as messed up as it was during the Great Depression. It is going nowhere fast (not unlike the Japanese economy which suffered through a similar housing bubble collapse and has still yet to recover — 17 years later.) The Great Depression would’ve went on another decade if the big-government spending on the world-war effort didn’t get the economy firing on all cylinders.

    So if Obama wins, the economy will still be limping along 4 years from now and that will give the neo-cons and social-cons enough ammo to foment a right-wing revolution. And who knows how far that will go? (“The Handmaid’s Tale” comes to mind…) Not only that, but the centrist Keynesian position will be discredited when, in fact, it was half-measures and right-of-center tough-Tory-times that failed to get results (just like during the Great Depression…)

    BTW, in the post-war era, America paid down debt from 135% debt/GDP to 35% using Keynesian economics. Over the past 30-year “age of greed” debt soared back up to 103% — borrowed-money tax-cuts lining off-shore tax havens of the super-rich.

  8. My god, I’m totally shocked. I’ve been reading Feschuk for years and never before have I seen something even remotely resembling the insight he displayed here. Usually it’s just shallow and glib observances on pop culture. Mr. Feschuk, welcome to the grownup club, (about time too.)

  9. Oh, the audience. Shudder. They looked like they had all just come from a taping of Maurey Povich.

  10. The speech was a genuine tour de force – as a speech. As a conveyance of facts; waall, it was truly Clintonesque.

  11. Thanks, Mr Clinton. The life of the USA’s party lives in u.

Sign in to comment.