A master class in politics: Bill Clinton

Second of a series: Notes on Bill Clinton’s magisterial performance at DNC 2012.

Bill Clinton’s nomination speech on the second night of the Democratic National Convention was an outstanding, even thrilling example of political rhetoric. He made the case for Barack Obama’s reelection in an almost scholastic manner: He raised each of the main charges leveled against Obama’s presidency, and then argued masterfully against each of them. That in almost each instance he demolished the Republican view was icing on the cake; the real gift was the conversational but detailed approach to policy he sought to engage his increasingly rapt audience in.

Much of the commentary I’ve read since then has been unapologetically nostalgic, about the good old days when “the country boy from Arkansas” was in his prime. (A video, several years old, of Clinton humiliating Fox News’ Chris Wallace in a knock-down interview began circulating again.) There were also many stories comparing his prepared statement with his actual remarks—Clinton, to the almost palpable joy of the commentariat, remains a master of improvisation. I thought this one in particular, by Dashiell Bennett of the Atlantic, was very well done.

We can get a sense of the initial impact Clinton made through Ed Kilgore’s live blog of the speech, or through Jonathan Cohn’s immediate take on it, written in the convention hall just moments after, while the electricity in the air was still crackling: “He had the crowd at ‘hope.’”

Some of the best pieces I read were attempts to explain why the “explainer-in-chief” was so good at explaining. Molly Ball noted the contrast between information-free political speeches and Clinton’s “dense, didactic” address: “felt like a whole different thing.” David Kusnet, once Clinton’s chief speechwriter, zeroed in on some of the “extemporizer-in-chief’s” winning improvisations. And the ever-sensible James Fallows offered a terrific analogy to explain the simple power of Clinton’s approach: sports-talk radio (in the US, of course), where “You rarely hear the kind of deliberate condescension, the unconcealable effort as if talking to slow learners, of many political ‘authorities’ addressing the unwashed.”

Someone on Andrew Sullivan’s team at The Daily Dish gathered reactions from bloggers in two helpful roundups, here and here. The Atlantic’s Bennett did his own roundup of reactions too. As we can see, some of the same things are said, some of the same notes struck.

E. J. Dionne Jr., whom I look up to with newfound respect after seeing him stand out in a panel discussion once with Harvard superstar professor Michael Sandel and conservative standard Bill Kristol, saw the opening created by “the cheerful political educator” as a singular opportunity to “advance a view of government for which, over the past 40 years, Democrats have often apologized.”

In the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza brought the somewhat complicated relationship between Obama and Clinton up to speed, and then viewed Clinton’s speech through that powerful prism.

Clinton biographer David Maraniss, on familiar ground, wrote a comprehensive view of Clinton’s performance, adding context not only in terms of character but also of history. If there is only one story to read on the Clinton speech, this I think is it.

Twelve years out of office but still and always ready to be needed, he took to prime time as master explainer and policy clarifier, party morale booster extraordinaire, voice of experience, historian longing for the old days of political bipartisanship, earnest economics instructor, hoarse whisperer to the middle class, and empathetic testifier for President Obama, who came to the Democratic National Convention arena on Wednesday night to watch as the former president placed his name in nomination.

Hoarse whisperer!

But I end, again, with Tom Junod. His post in Esquire is another wonderful meditation on the “insufficiently pure” reality of politics. He catches himself changing his mind about the very notion of political talent (“I knew I was wrong as soon as Bill Clinton walked out on stage on Wednesday night”), riffs on Clinton’s “theatrical wonkery” and the “bravura stagecraft” of the Obama-Clinton hug (something Lizza pointed out too), and improvises a new way to look at a political phenomenon: Clinton, Junod writes, has “a talent for totality.”

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2 Comments

Filed under Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

2 responses to “A master class in politics: Bill Clinton

  1. Pingback: Better than it sounds: Barack Obama | John Nery | Newsstand

  2. Pingback: Column: Journalistic judgment and Obama’s speech | John Nery | Newsstand

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