Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Bill Clinton’s Night

Bill Clinton’s Night

Photograph via the New York Daily News

That was Bill Clinton. Remember him?

I’m tempted to just end this column here and now. The southern writer Flannery O’Connor once said, “A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded,” but I’ve long thought the opposite is true when it comes to good political speeches. In this case, the reduction more or less comes to: oh yeah, that was Bill Clinton.

Even Fox News analyst Charles Krauthammer, maybe the lone man in America who thought last night’s speech was poor (plenty disliked it but most admitted it was an excellent speech), conceded that “it had all the classic Clinton elements.”

It was all that and more. Clinton came up on stage, wagged his finger as only he can do, and gave a speech that was an impassioned defense of the Obama presidency and a case for four more years; a harsh rebuke of Republican intransigence; and a technocratic review of where American policy stands and how we got here. He was also one of the few Democrats to explicitly say: yes, actually, we are better off than we were four years ago.

Clinton was just the man to give such a speech, probably the only man. He has the tongue of a populist and the heart of a wonk. During my training to become a Teach For America corps member, we occasionally watched videos of teachers who were able to get children excited about learning for inspiration. Reading! the teacher would say. Math! And the little first-graders would scream with delight, as if they’d been told it was time for recess.

I was brought back to those videos last night, watching delegates cheering at the mere mention of the word “arithmetic.” Who but Clinton could say, forty minutes into a speech, “Let’s talk about the debt,” and not lose the crowd?

[pullquote_right]Clinton has the tongue of a populist and the heart of a wonk.[/pullquote_right]

So, the crowd still with him, he talked about the debt, and Medicaid, and Medicare, and the budget, and every other domestic policy dispute under the American sun. And it felt like a conversation, not a lecture.

Conservatives had three main rebuttals. The first, of course, was Monica Lewinsky. Fox News’ Brit Hume invoked her name. So did the Associated Press, in a strange, nonsensical fact check, which basically asserted that Clinton pointing out that Romney’s campaign said it wouldn’t be bound by fact checkers, was somehow false because he had once lied about Lewinsky.

The second rebuttal was a statement from the Romney campaign saying that Clinton’s speech and presidency set a high bar for Obama to clear. I’m glad we cleared up that Republicans now think Bill Clinton is admirable, and not a threat to the country like they thought he was in the 1990s. It’s as if he’s switched places with the individual mandate.

The third rebuttal was: we have Paul Ryan. It came from Krauthammer, who said that while Clinton made a lot of “detailed rebuttals,” “Paul Ryan could handle all of that in 10 minutes in his debate.” This line nicely illustrates both conservatives’ trust in Ryan’s genius and their belief that complex shades-of-gray policy issues can be definitively answered and swept aside in the time it would take for a few commercial breaks. Details? We don’t need no stinkin’ details! ought to be the Romney-Ryan campaign’s unofficial slogan. Indeed, one of the implicit undercurrents of Clinton’s speech was its hopefully-finally destruction of the Paul-Ryan-as-policy-wonk meme. You want wonk? You want wonk? I’ll show you wonk! This is what a wonk sounds like!

Will Clinton’s speech make a difference? It’s too early to get a good range of poll responses. For now, all we have is the word of GOP consultant Alex Castellanos, who unleashed one of the greatest overreactions of this election, saying, “Lock the doors. You don’t have to come back tomorrow . . . This will be the moment that probably reelected Barack Obama.”

Hey, who hasn’t gotten carried away by Bill Clinton as some point or another?