It was, to be sure, a very long speech. Maybe not as long as the last very long speech, but it felt even longer because it was a speech styled not as a rip-snorting political message, but a slow-burn love letter, maybe in the style of J. Alfred Prufrock:
“Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair
“In the spring of 1971,” Bill Clinton opened onstage Tuesday night at the DNC, “I met a girl.” Then he launched into an extremely detailed accounting of nearly ever year since.
Maybe the whole thing bored you. There were moments during the speech, which for awhile was clocking in at two minutes per year, when I just wanted to fast forward a decade or two. But the point of this speech was twofold: Hillary Clinton went from state to state, agency to agency, task force to task force, and made life demonstrably better for children, women, the poor, and the disabled. And that if you think her life started on the day she decided to run for office, you’re an asshole.
Bill Clinton—older, wiser, chastened—is just grateful to have got the girl.
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”).
As long and detailed and rambling as the speech was, it’s what every woman who has ever had a job wishes her husband would say about her. She did this, and got no credit. She did that and got no credit. She worked and worked and worked—usually for men with important names. She got no credit, but I am crediting her now. (If you were hissing “get to Monica” at the TV, you missed the point: He is crediting Hillary now. For all of it.)
Bill Clinton is still a hell of a storyteller. He dove into the elaborate biography of a woman who spent most of her professional life trying to troubleshoot crazy crap at Yale–New Haven Hospital, at the Children’s Defense Fund in D.C., for children denied equal access to education in Alabama, for voters in Texas and juveniles incarcerated in South Carolina, and for kids trying to access schools in Massachusetts. And then more and more and more. No credit. In a strange way it was a woman’s story, told the way a woman would tell it: long on detail, short on ego. Sure Bill Clinton name-checked half the states in the convention hall. But that was largely because Hillary Clinton upped and traveled to those states long before young women hopped from state to state to effect social and legal change.
There was a tribute to the birth of Chelsea and an homage to Police Academy movies and a shoutout to the fact that Hillary was the “best darn change-maker I ever met in our entire life.” And then the pivot to note that campaigns and conventions and speeches are “fun” but that the work Hillary Clinton did year in and year out most likely was not. In the half-kvetch of the beleaguered political spouse he warned that every damn dinner and lunch and long walk was all about Hillary trying to “move the ball forward.” Because that is “just who she is.”
And then the sound of rubber hitting road: “How” asked Bill Clinton, “does this square with what you heard at the Republican convention?” And all of a sudden the insane amount of detail in his speech made sense. One version of Hillary is real, Bill argued, and “one is made up.” And he, after a lifetime of marriage, knows the truth. “The real one has done more change-making before she was 30 than most do in a lifetime in office. The other is a cartoon.”
This was the speech of a man who knows that he is on the downslope of an extraordinary career, who knows he’s lived a long and full and blessed life, which “really took off when I met that girl.”
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor
And this, and so much more?
The best bits? He had some great lines at the end on immigration reform, on caring about Muslims, the police, and young black American men. But that’s not really what the speech was about. No, the sweetest bit came at the very end, when he said: “Those of us who have more yesterdays than tomorrows tend to care more about our children and grandchildren,” and, because of that, he “hoped” we would elect this woman he had described, the way you could only describe someone who had changed you indelibly: “The reason you should elect her is that in the greatest country on Earth we have always been about tomorrow,” and “your children and grandchildren will bless you forever if you do.”
“I met a girl,” Bill Clinton said of this mother and wife and politician we have all been following and misunderstanding and cartooning for decades now. And for the first time Tuesday night, most of us met her as well.