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?