PHILADELPHIA — If this election required Hillary Clinton to deliver a speech for the ages — a speech that will be quoted for decades — then her convention acceptance address fell far short.
But if what was needed was a solid speech — reaching out to every key constituency and punctuated with occasional good lines — then Hillary did okay. In a sense, the speech was a mirror of the candidate: It offered no surprising inspirational themes, but it conveyed a consistent sense of competence and command.
Much will justifiably be made of the historic nature of the nomination of the first woman for president. But for all the talk about “when there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit,” the moment that defied sexual stereotypes came later in the speech.
Talking about the former reality-show host who commandeered the Republican nomination, Clinton posed a question that will be repeated in TV ads and debate lines throughout this campaign: “Do you really think Donald Trump has the temperament to be commander in chief?”
That was the set-up line for Hillary’s answer: “Imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
Think about that for a moment. For generations, it was women candidates who were derided as too emotional and too flighty to be trusted with executive power. Now the first woman nominated for president is partly premising her campaign on the idea that her male opponent is too affected by his moods and his whims to ever be handed the nuclear codes.
There was a defensive cast to part of the speech — reflecting Clinton’s awareness of her dismal polling numbers on issues of trust. As she put it in a line that was probably endlessly debated with her speechwriters, “I get it that some people just don’t know what to make of me.”
But rather than tackling the trust issue head on, Hillary retreated into family biography. Presumably reflecting polling suggesting that many voters think she came from a privileged background (instead of being a product of the 1960s meritocracy), Clinton said, “The family I’m from, well, no one had their name on big buildings.”
Although this was the most important speech of Clinton’s career, there was a shopworn quality to much of it. Even the slogan of unity — “Stronger Together” — is much like the catch phrase (“Better Together”) used in the 2014 referendum that kept Scotland part of Great Britain.
Political reporters are, admittedly, often not the best judges of how a speech will play with swing voters watching at home. What seems hackneyed to the boys and girls on the bus may seem persuasive and striking to a married waitress in Waterloo, Iowa, who is just tuning into the presidential campaign.
But no matter how it plays in the polls, it was dispiriting to hear at the beginning of the speech so many tired tropes about Philadelphia and the Constitution. Speechwriter laziness — rather than smart politics — is responsible for hackneyed lines like, “Our country’s motto is E Pluribus Unum — out of many we are one. Will we stay true to that motto?”
Forty-seven years ago in her ever-intriguing speech to her fellow Wellesley graduates, Hillary Rodham referred to a poem, “East Coker,” that T.S. Eliot wrote in the darkest days of World War II.
The stanzas that moved this earnest 21-year-old woman from the Chicago suburbs suggested that nothing endures — “There is only the fight to recover what has been lost/And found and lost again and again.” The remedy? “For us, there is only the trying.”
Of course, a poem is not didactic like an essay. And a woman in her late sixties should not have to answer politically for the intellectual enthusiasms of her youth. But in many ways, Hillary Clinton’s life and career are encapsulated in those seven words: “For us, there is only the trying.”
This is a political year that has been shaped by candidates who traffic in absolutes from the zealotry of Bernie Sanders to the snarling savagery of Donald Trump.
But that isn’t Hillary Clinton.
She is a believer in incremental progress rather than salvation. She places her faith in steady work rather than charismatic crescendos. She probably sometimes looks at politics and sees Sisyphus struggling with his boulder.
She would almost certainly be happier right now — regardless of the polls — running against a generic Republican like Marco Rubio. But fate has given her a different mission: making her the first woman (or man) ever to run for president against a bilious billionaire with an ill-disguised authoritarian streak.
That is why every missed opportunity is a small tragedy in this Campaign of the Century. And while Hillary Clinton’s speech certainly did not cost her votes, there were probably other approaches that would have gained her more. But, in the end, her acceptance speech was likable enough.