Bill Clinton is a tough act to follow. Not only because he can talk policy without putting people to sleep, but because he’s the only Democrat with a sense of irony.
Just once, I wanted to hear someone at the convention last night get up and ditch the my-mama-was-a-one-legged-steel-worker routine. How great would it be had Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin or Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, or token hot person Eva Longoria, greeted the crowd with a proud, “Hello my fellow Americans. My grandfather was a tax attorney,” or “Good evening friends. I come from a long line of Boca Raton oncologists.”
President Barack Obama, on the other hand, has no choice but to be humble, something that comes with the territory when you’re the leader of the free world; something that greatly diminishes your ability to counter your opponent without sounding like a jerk. Which is why Clinton’s speech was fated to outshine Obama’s from the get-go. As a been-there-done-that political grandfather, Clinton was able to play the all-wise oratorical mediator between an allegedly fair and logical Barack Obama and an allegedly unfeeling, ideological Mitt Romney. If Obama had given his speech on the need for “constructive co-operation,” as Clinton did, and the GOP’s militant reluctance to co-operate, he would have come off as petty and obnoxious–like a school-yard tattletale complaining that the other kids won’t play with him. And nobody likes a tattletale.
So while the Democrats love to talk about fair play, they had to know that after Clinton spoke, the game was rigged forever. Obama would not and did not out-speechify the 42nd president.
But he certainly tried, and did a pretty good job regardless.
Not necessarily because he affirmed voting rights, women’s rights, immigration rights, gay rights, the assault on Osama Bin Laden, the auto recovery, and a strong middle-class (things we already knew he would do), but because he turned the biggest Republican myth—that compassion is a sign of weakness—on its head, when he said the word “citizenship.” Citizenship evokes duty and strength and macho-ness, and Obama conflated those themes with liberal compassion, rendering it less Gandhi—more Game of Thrones.
He even gave brief props to Paul Ryan’s second religion—Randian objectivism—in his assertion that though it’s great to achieve personal success, the American dream is bound to a breed of citizenship that requires empathy and compassion. In a way he was making an argument for the country’s soul.
“We insist on personal responsibility, and we celebrate individual initiative. We’re not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known.
“But we also believe in something called citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.”
It’s like something Bill Adama would say. And it’s hard to argue with Bill Adama.
Other notable quotables
“Now, our friends down in Tampa, at the Republican convention, were more than happy to talk about everything they think is wrong with America, but they didn’t have much to say about how they’d make it right. They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan. And that’s because all they had to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last 30 years: ‘Have a surplus? Try a tax cut.’ ‘Deficit too high? Try another.’ ‘Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.’”
“My opponent — my opponent said it was “tragic” to end the war in Iraq, and he won’t tell us how he’ll end the war in Afghanistan. Well I have, and I will.”
And my personal favourite:
“We don’t think the government can solve all our problems. But we don’t think that the government is the source of all our problems, any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.”