“In the spring of 1971 I met a girl,” Bill Clinton recalled last night (July 26), opening a speech that was unlike any he has given in his long political and public career. In 42 minutes, the former president recounted the 45 years since he met his wife, who yesterday became the first woman nominated for president by a major party. Hillary Clinton is, he said, “the best darn change-maker I have ever seen.”
In the speech, he narrated her many political and social feats through the lens of their life together, creating a narrative in which she was the hero: the truly talented politician, the better agent of progress, the one who could have had anyone, and chose him. With a touching display of pride, gratitude and awe, the speech told the story of the Democratic Party’s nominee from the perspective of its most privileged witness—not someone who worked with or for her, not one of the world’s leaders, but simply her spouse. And he presented himself as simply a man wanting to show how much he loves his wife. “I married my best friend,” he said.
Unfailingly, he put her at the center of personal history he recounted, drawing her fights and successes as bigger and harder than his, even while he was the man in the spotlight “She opened my eyes,” he said, “to a whole new world of public service by a private citizen.”
As he told of her early activism and advocacy for disabled children, he described in parallel his efforts to convince her to marry him. He made the audience see eye to eye with the plainspoken farmer he mentioned in the speech, who said, “looks to me like we elected the wrong Clinton.”
Bill Clinton did not steal the show, as some say he did in 2012 during his wife’s primary battle with Barack Obama, and his speech did not reach the emotional heights and technical virtuosity of Michelle Obama‘s Monday evening speech. But wasn’t that exactly his task? To make it not about himself, but about the candidate, to use the stage to turn the spotlight on his wife?
Bill Clinton’s was a lovely, moving speech, even if it at times verged on clumsy—or perhaps because it did. And that took a certain mastery too achieve, especially considering that America remembers well that the Clintons’ marriage has had its rough patches. It was perhaps not a masterpiece of speechwriting, not for a former president known for his eloquence, but it was remarkable as Bill Clinton’s taking up the mantle of hopeful first spouse.
And it achieved a great deal. By focusing on Hillary Clinton’s more private, personal sides, Bill Clinton succeeded in softening her image, painting her as “the best mother in the world,” and the “worrier in chief.” He described a wise, kind, optimistic wife. (“Here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to get a house, you’re going to get a job, we’re going to enjoy being Chelsea’s parents” she told him, when he lost a governor race in 1980.) He showed frank admiration for her, as an unapologetic overachiever in all of her endeavors.
As other first ladies and aspiring first ladies have before him, Bill Clinton built his spouse up to the image that America wants to see in its presidents—of a superhuman, as outstanding in private as in the Oval Office.
Until now, Clinton has not been much help to his wife’s campaign, in public at least. He has ill-advisedly called Bernie Sanders sexist and attacked the Black Lives Matter activists. With this speech, however, Bill Clinton the statesman took a bow and left the field to his wife, counting himself among “those of us who have more yesterdays than tomorrows.”
He did exactly what he was supposed to, and in that he showed himself to be ready for what he hopes will be his next job: first gentleman.