The Clintons are officially back. Though their return to power took eight years longer than planned, Bill and Hillary are again in control of the Democratic Party. And the former president delivered an impassioned plea for voters to put the couple back in the White House in just over three months.
With his wife, the former first lady and secretary of state, officially crowned the party’s presidential nominee earlier Tuesday night, Bill clearly relished the stage — and his prime-time role — at the Democratic convention. His mission was clear: Describe Hillary the person, something she and many a surrogate have failed to do over the decades.
Hillary’s shattering of a so-called “glass ceiling” by becoming the first woman to capture a major political party’s presidential nomination handed Bill an opportunity to both humanize his wife of 41 years and, based on his experience as president, warn against electing Republican nominee Donald Trump in November.
Never before in U.S. history has a husband taken the stage at a major political convention to speak about a wife who is a nominee. Never before has a former president done so to speak about a spouse who is one step away from also occupying the Oval Office.
The 42nd president did so with his usual gusto, verbally walking down memory lane, starting with the first time he ever laid eyes on his future bride. Bill talked of courting Hillary at Yale Law School, recalling the first time they went for a stroll.
“We’ve been walking and talking and laughing ever since,” he said to applause, many delegates looking fondly at the stage. “I married my best friend,” he said, describing her as “smart and strong and loving and caring.”
That’s a side of Hillary Clinton much of the country has not experienced since they burst onto the national stage in the early 1990s. But with her high negative ratings — a recent Economist/YouGov poll found 60 percent of Americans viewed her as “not honest and trustworthy” — it’s unclear whether her husband’s words will markedly improve that widespread view.
He described asking her to marry him three times before she accepted — but only after he bought a house she liked in Arkansas. To Bill, Hillary “was easy to underestimate, with her soft manner.” But he credited her with opening his life to “a whole new world of public service,” describing a trip to investigate a “segregated academy” in the Deep South.
When Bill advised Hillary she should run for office, she doubted her own electability, and said he should seek public office because “you’re as smart as anyone.”
It wasn’t long before he became governor of Arkansas. But even as he was in the governor’s mansion, Hillary continued to work on policy issues.
“She’s the best darn change-maker I’ve ever met in my entire life. If you believe in making change from the bottom up, if you believe in making people’s lives better,” Bill Clinton said, to applause. “She sure has, and she’s been worth every single year she’s put into making other people’s lives better.”
Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, said Bill needed to “humanize her — she badly needs that done.”
“What voters like about Hillary, even ones who don’t like her a lot, is her persistence and resilience,” Bannon said. “Voters realize that people have been beating the crap out of her since 1991. When she gets knocked down, she always gets up fighting. That’s her biggest virtue in running for president.”
Bill appeared to hit that mark, describing the Democratic nominee as something of a policy bulldog who has worked for decades to improve people’s lives.
Further to that end, Bill described Hillary as a caring mother, saying she kept looking for drawers in which to put lining paper when they dropped their only child, Chelsea, off at Stanford University.
“As you’ll see Thursday night when Chelsea speaks,” the doting father and husband said in his signature raspy Arkansas drawl, “Hillary’s done a pretty darn good job of being a mother.”
Delegates inside the arena called his humanizing effort a success.
“He made her human. He got people to really understand how she’s really spent her life always working on behalf of others,’ said Cynthia Morrison, a Clinton delegate from Portsmouth, Virginia. “She’s a doer, not a talker. So I thought that he did an excellent job of painting a picture of who the real Hillary Clinton is and the things that she’s done.”
“I thought he really hit it out of the park,” said Bryan Ball, Clinton delegate from Buffalo. “As the president of the area’s Stonewall Democrats he said hearing Clinton speak about LGBT progress was very emotional.” Ball said he would have liked to have more Sanders supporters in the room, but he was hopeful they could come together.
Amanda Pacheco, from Washington, described his speech as “heartfelt.”
“No one knows her better than him,” she said, calling the former commander in chief a “trusted messenger,” noting the Clintons have “been partners the whole time, through thick and thin.”
There was speculation that supporters of her primary foe , independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, or Black Lives Matter movement members would disrupt his speech. There was none of that, as the Wells Fargo Arena crowd hung on the “Big Dog’s” every word and every memory of his four decades with his wife.
Later, he would tout her work to salvage a failed health care overhaul effort as first lady, saying she was determined to get something done — even if it was well short of the final goal. And he made sure to point out she worked with the very Republican leaders who had scuttled her larger overhaul effort.
Bill also described his wife as a tireless secretary of state who helped slap new sanctions on Iran over its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and added she once flew from Cambodia to the Middle East, where she kept Israel and Hamas from starting a conflict in Gaza. Again, he tried to paint his wife as more than a darling of Democrats, noting Republican lawmakers often praised her work as the country’s top diplomat.
The former president took several jabs at Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, without actually mentioning him. He said last week’s Republican National Convention presented a far different picture of Hillary Clinton than he did Tuesday night.
“One is real,” he quipped. “One is made up.”
“The real one had done more positive changemaking before she was 30 than many public servants do while they’re in office,” he said.
Bill Clinton suggested Trump has created a “cartoon” version of his wife, alleging the real estate tycoon and reality television star views anything but such a two-dimensional foe as “a real threat.”
Clinton’s speech came as Trump, off his rocky nominating convention, slingshotted ahead of the Democratic nominee in many polls. One, conducted by CNN, showed the New York businessman leading 44 percent to 39 percent, in a four-way race also featuring the nominees of the Libertarian and Green parties. (That survey had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.)
The Economist/YouGov Poll conducted in the days after last week’s Republican National Convention found Trump within two points of Clinton (40 percent to 38 percent), with a 4.2 percentage points error margin.
Jim Manley, also a Democratic strategist, earlier in the evening had suggested Clinton should avoid “any jokes about a two-for-one deal” because “she’s running for president, not him.” Bill never alluded to any role he would have in a Hillary Clinton administration.
Reaction to the former president’s speech in nearby South Philadelphia showed signs of admiration for his rhetorical skills, if not necessarily enthusiasm for his wife’s campaign.
“I actually was born Nov. 3, 1992, the day he was elected,” said Lily Amberg, 23, who watched the speech at Noir Restaurant and Bar on East Passyunk. “I voted for Bernie, but I think Bill was one of our best presidents.”
She’s also motivated also by her dislike of Trump: “I don’t think Bill will sway me one way or another. … I’m extremely against Trump.”
While allowing Bill Clinton “spoke well” and is “a very eloquent man,” the bartender at Noir, Colin Irving, 28, summed up the weary attitude of many Democrats.
“You may not agree with everything she’s done,” Irving said, “but she is most certainly the lesser of two evils, and that’s what politics has become.”
He plans on voting for Hillary Clinton.
Bridget Bowman, Jason Dick, Niels Lesniewski, and Simone Pathe contributed reporting from Philadelphia.