Remember George W. Bush? You might not if you watched last week’s GOP convention. The country’s last Republican president, elected to two terms in office and still popular enough in some parts of the country to produce a massive best-selling memoir, was mentioned about as often as Mad Cow Disease. That was a mistake. Former presidents, even controversial ones, are experienced performers who have stood on a convention stage before, made an argument to millions of people, and won their votes. They usually can draw a sizable crowd, too. On Wednesday evening, for the second time in four years, Bill Clinton demonstrated just how effective a former president can be.
In his entire life, Mr. Clinton has never delivered a memorable speech. Few quotes attached to his name echo through history—unless, that is, you count the cringe-worthy. (“I didn’t inhale” “I did not have sex with that woman,” “That is one good-looking mummy” and, of course: “That depends on what your definition of is is.”)
Yet a Bill Clinton speech is an event nonetheless. Not so much for the particular turns of phrase, but for the way those words are delivered. Once again, to the strains of Fleetwood Mac, Bill Clinton descended upon the masses to make his case. He looked pretty much the same, white-haired and red-faced. His familiar tics once again on display—the cornball lines, the lip biting, the fist cocked into the air as he makes a point, the mocking parry against his political enemies. And, yes, no Bill Clinton speech is complete without the endless narcissism.
Clearly I never much liked Bill Clinton, but I have to admit I wanted to hear him speak. And once again he did not disappoint. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer called it “the best speech I’ve ever heard Bill Clinton deliver.” I guess that is possible, since there are few competitors for the title. But in truth there were few great zingers. Sometimes Bubba’s argument was hard to follow. Occasionally he conjured up absurd statistics. At one point, he added up the “private sector” jobs created by Republican presidents versus Democrat presidents since 1961. Why 1961? Who knows? What does that have to do with the situation today? It wasn’t clear. Was that statistic even accurate? By the time anyone figures out that answer, it won’t matter anymore.
And predictably Clinton found umpteen opportunities to brag about himself, his initiatives, his wife, his record in office. “People ask me all the time how we got four balanced budgets in a row,” he said at one point. Really? All the time? Who are these people?
Here’s why I think Bill Clinton’s speech was successful. For all of his tortured arguments and wonky, ponderous asides, Bill Clinton made a substantive case. He dealt with facts and statistics. He made points and then explained why he made them. He had details. Boy, did he have details. In short, he did what almost no one at the Republican convention tried to do, what few conventions bother to do anymore. He treated the American people like thinking human beings.
I have to confess I didn’t think Americans cared that much about substance from politicians. That was why I thought Mitt Romney’s speech last week was a success—at least for him. It was delivered well. It had a few good lines. It was coherent. Nothing phenomenal, to be sure, but I thought good enough. I knew that nothing of substance was really said. There was in fact nothing in Mitt Romney’s speech that told the American people what he would specifically do as president other than build world-class schools and create jobs (somehow). I thought people wouldn’t notice the lack of details. Apparently they did. Those who bothered to watch Romney’s speech came away disappointed. And by a surprising margin.
Last week, in fact, is already a blur to most Americans. Three days of nonstop attention to Mitt Romney and his agenda for the nation did not help the candidate in the slightest. That’s because the GOP convention spent most of those days handing out cotton-candy slogans that some batch of consultants thought up: “Believe in America.”“Restoring America’s Promise.” These are almost parodies. It is sadly fitting that the most memorable moment of the Republican Convention came when an old man talked to an imaginary person in an empty chair.
Bill Clinton offered a few clunky clichés of his own on Wednesday, but not that many. Mostly he just talked about what he believed and why he believed it and didn’t worry if all of it could be followed. His points could be completely wrong, his prescriptions disastrous, but at least there was something serious to consider, and discuss, and debate. Maybe it’s not too late for Romney and Obama to offer Americans something similar.