It’s not easy to imagine Bill Clinton as the first lady.
If Hillary is elected, he will be the oldest first lady in the history of the country. Barbara Bush currently holds the record, having ascended to the title as George H. W. Bush’s spouse at the age of 63, and Bill will be seven years older.
Michelle Obama raised the bar by planting vegetable gardens and leading exercise classes. Bill is more likely to host senior golf tournaments and keynote the AARP convention.
When he first entered the White House in 1993, the most popular cell phone was a Motorola DynaTac. It weighed as much as a brick, offered 30 minutes of talk time and cost $4,000. The worldwide web was yet to be invented and if you wanted to send email, you used a Compuserve account.
By the time he left office, you could Google “stained blue dress” and come up with thousands of stories about his squalid affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Hillary has adopted to the new technology. Google “Clinton, Hillary: emails.” Bill has not.
Instead, he has kicked around giving speeches, often for six-figure fees, about his vision of the future. To his credit, he has raised millions of dollars for his Clinton Foundation, which has given millions more to worthy projects around the world. But the older you get, the blurrier your vision gets.
When Barack Obama needed a lift in his 2012 re-election campaign, Bill Clinton was his go-to guy. He could explain, in words even a white man could understand, why Obama’s measured response to the Great Recession was a far cry better than doing nothing.
Now, when it came to applying the same magic to his wife’s campaign, he began in a wistful mood.
“In the spring of 1971 I met a girl.”
Wouldn’t you know, it was in a class at Yale law school on politics and civil rights. “She had thick blond hair, big glasses, wore no makeup, and she had a sense of strength and self-possession that I found magnetic.”
Clinton recounted his many attempts to first date her, then marry her, fleshing out along the way Hillary’s own personal history. He told of going to her home in Park Ridge, Illinois, “a perfect example of post World War II middle-class America, street after street of nice houses great schools, good parks, a big public swimming pool, and almost all white” and meeting her crusty, conservative father, her rambunctious brothers and liberal mom.
Their courtship, by his telling, was hit and miss, as Hillary was always going off to pursue good causes: a summer internship interviewing workers in migrant camps; a trip to Dothan, Alabama, to end tax breaks for segregated schools; registering Mexican-American voters in South Texas; researching the incarceration of black boys in men’s prisons in South Carolina for prison reform legislation; and finding disabled children shut out of schools in Massachusetts, writing up her findings in a report that would lead Congress to adopt the Americans with Disabilities Act. All this in the span of two years.
Republicans listening to the speech might say Hillary never met a problem that couldn’t be solved with legislation. But Clinton cited them as evidence Hillary was always making things better.
While party whips handed out signs on the floor saying “Change Maker,” Bill segued back into his love story.
“Meanwhile, let’s get back to business. I was trying to convince her to marry me.”
That happened on October 11, 1975, in a charming story about a little brick house with an attic fan and no air conditioning that he bought for her in Arkansas.
And the rest is history, right? Not in a Bill Clinton speech. He was just getting started.
His political career took him to Little Rock (where Hillary started the Arkansas Advocates for Families and Children). He went from attorney general to governor, to ex-governor, to governor again. Along the way, they had little Chelsea Clinton — “15 minutes after I got home from the National Governors Conference in Washington.”
“It was the greatest moment of my life. The miracle of a new beginning.”
“For the next 17 years, through nursery school, Montessori, kindergarten, through T-ball, softball, soccer, volleyball and her passion for ballet, through sleepovers, summer camps, family vacations and Chelsea’s own very ambitious excursions, from Halloween parties in the neighborhood to a Viennese waltz gala at the White House, Hillary first and foremost was a mother.”
Is there a better definition of a mother? In just over 50 words, Clinton gave his wife a dimension totally lacking in her campaign so far. But wait, there’s more.
She chaired a governor’s commission on education in Arkansas, went on a 75-county listening tour, discovered a HIPPY pre-school program in Israel and convinced him to support it.
“She’s insatiably curious, she’s a natural leader, she’s a good organizer, and she’s the best darn change-maker I ever met in my entire life,” he said.
Up with the signs.
There was, of course, a downside to all this that makes you glad you’re not Bill Clinton. “If you were sitting where I’m sitting and you heard what I have heard at every dinner conversation, every lunch conversation, on every lone walk, you would say this woman has never been satisfied with the status quo in anything.”
Bill Clinton can riff on anything. When he’s on a roll, there’s no stopping him. His speech followed Chelsea to her freshman year at Stanford where he stood in a trance staring out the window while Hillary was “on her hands and knees desperately looking for one more drawer to put liner paper in.” It was Chelsea who told them it was time to go.
“Now fast forward,” he said, eliding a certain period where Congress impeached him, to Hillary winning a Senate race in New York and running for President in 2008.
Bill’s own bumpy ride through two presidential campaigns and eight years in the White House were just footnotes in his tribute to to Hillary’s successes in the Senate and as Secretary of State. As FLOTUS – we’re gonna have to rethink that name – he knows it’s all about supporting your spouse.
Which brought him around to his point. How do you square what he just told you about Hillary and what you heard at the Republican convention?
“How do you square it? You can’t. One is real, the other is made up. You just have to decide. You just have to decide which is which, my fellow Americans.”
“If you win elections on the theory that government is always bad and will mess up a two-car parade, a real change-maker represents a threat,” he went on. “So your only option is to create a cartoon.”
“Cartoons are two-dimensional. They’re easy to absorb. Life in the real world is complicated and real change is hard. And a lot of people even think it’s boring.”
There was so much in those last lines about Bill and Hillary he could have gone on for another hour, but he was at the end of his time. Alicia Keys was waiting in the wings and Hillary was about to shatter the glass ceiling in a video marking her nomination to be the first woman President of the United States.
But Bill had one more thing to say. “Those of us who have more yesterdays than tomorrows tend to care more about our children and grandchildren,” he concluded. “Your children and grandchildren will bless you forever if you do.”
Think what you will about Bill Clinton, he still gives a good speech. But don’t expect me to rush out to for the next one at the AARP convention.