Bill Clinton’s speech in Charlotte gave the Democrats and Barack Obama exactly what they needed.

Clinton rewrote his speech as he went along—and hit all the right notes.   

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

John and Sasha,

Before Bill Clinton spoke tonight, the beg from reporters—out of deadline panic, out of curiosity, out of fatigue—was “Where’s the prepared text?” Nobody had one. Re-reading Sandra Fluke’s address (in prime time, why, again?) did not cut it.

Luckily for us, the prepared text was almost useless. Clinton rewrote it in real time. The most common addition was now, as a little rev-up before the wordy paragraphs. “That brings me to health care” became “Now, that brings me to health care,” and so on. If there was a stock phrase, Clinton reached for Mark Twain’s Book of Overstatements, and replaced the boring stuff. 

President Barack Obama, right, and former president Bill Clinton.
President Barack Obama, right, and former president Bill Clinton appear together on the stage on day two of the Democratic National Convention (DNC), at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, NC, Sept. 5, 2012.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.

The text: “I believe that with all my heart.”

The speech: “Whether you believe it or not, I just want you to know, with all my heart, that I believe it. I believe it. Let me tell you why I believe it.”

Text: “It gets worse.”

Speech: “Folks, this is serious, because it gets worse. And you won’t be laughing when I finish with this.”

From the Issenberg-Weigel seats in the press box, you could see the teleprompter stop short every time Clinton went off on a tangent. Eventually, we got pages, too—the four of them took 49 minutes to read. Clinton never lost the audience. No surprise, obviously, even though no one will let Clinton forget the time he gave a speech for Michael Dukakis and rambled past the “wrap it up” lights. (Actual AP headline: “Clinton’s boring speech in 1988 hurt his image.”) What was a 3,136-word speech became at least 5,600 words.

What did Clinton do with all the extra verbiage? He served up policy-wonking with cornpone. Democrats badly needed this. I wrote earlier today about how they’ve completely given up on name-checking the stimulus and instead tried to tell little stories about the stuff Republicans haven’t scandalized. This, they believe, is because Republicans are better at framing up government programs than they are—conservatives make the initiatives sound wasteful before those programs can sound like anything else.  

Clinton has the same skill. He was given a pretty dense line about Medicare, explaining that the $712 billion allegedly “stolen from Medicare” by Democrats actually cut payments to providers. He added: “That’s the same attack they leveled against the Congress in 2010. And they got a lot of votes on it. But it’s not true.” And when he was done explaining that Paul Ryan’s budget included the same cuts, he added: “You gotta give ‘em one thing, it takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.” Rahm Emanuel, front and center for the speech, bent over laughing at this. Has any Democrat previously made that point and not sounded wimpy?

The most effective use of cornpone came with the welfare lines. Again, liberals had been waiting for this. They have trouble getting voters to believe that the black president would never ever weaken welfare-to-work. Clinton explained that the reform was tied to employment increases, then ad-libbed: 

So this is personal to me. We moved millions of people off welfare. It was one of the reasons that in the eight years I was president, we had a hundred times as many people move out of poverty into the middle class than happened under the previous 12 years, a hundred times as many. It’s a big deal.

That “personal” touch—in a time when a documentary about his alleged anti-colonialism can be a hit, that’s what Obama’s been missing.


Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention.