Clinton, Thinking About Tomorrow

Former President Bill Clinton has pledged to cheering Democratic National Convention delegates to strongly support Barack Obama's campaign for the White House saying Obama "has a remarkable ability to inspire people." Video by AP
By David Maraniss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 27 -- At first, it seemed, it might be all about Bill Clinton and yesteryear. The former president strode onto the stage Wednesday night to his old campaign theme song, "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)," and bathed in the glow of a standing ovation that went on so long and loud that he had to finally confess, "I love this." But it turned out to be not about him at all, with Clinton delivering a speech that framed the case for Sen. Barack Obama and against the Republicans in a way that no one at this convention had done before.

Only a day earlier, when there was some unease among Clinton's associates about whether he was being straitjacketed in what he could say in his speech, Obama tried to defuse the situation by saying Clinton could say whatever he wanted. Good call, as it turned out. Perhaps not even Obama himself could have conjured up an oration so powerful on his behalf. Not only did Clinton utter the words "Barack Obama" 15 times, they came in his first sentence and his last, and there were long riffs about the candidate in between.

At the start of the speech, Clinton joked that it seemed unfair that he had to follow the previous night's address by his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who many believed had delivered the most flowing and soulful speech of her failed campaign. Fat chance. Clinton is always competitive, even in some ways with his wife, and the praise she received seemed almost to prod him to find ways to top her.

The orchestration of his speech came in four parts.

First was the unscripted ode to himself, which amounted to nothing more than him joyously trying to get the audience to sit down. He started and stopped three times before the crowd quieted enough to let him speak, and those several minutes, while eating up the time allotted to him -- which he was destined to ignore in any case -- served to remind everyone that for all of the controversy that seems to swirl around him, in and out of office, in and out of the campaigns, he still holds an uncommon place in the modern Democratic pantheon as the party's only two-term president of the postwar era.

Then came an ode to Obama, which, if not overly warm, was indisputably lengthy and strong, filling the one void of his wife's largely Obama-less speech the night before. Saying he is convinced that Obama is "the man for this job," he praised the nominee's "remarkable ability to inspire people," his "intelligence and curiosity," his "clear grasp" of foreign policy, the strength he gained from the "long, hard primary" against Hillary and the judgment he showed in choosing Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. as his running mate.

If this was all about Obama, there were also intimations of the Clinton years here. In 1992, Clinton gained momentum going into his convention by choosing Sen. Al Gore to run with him; and Obama, he said, in selecting Biden, "hit it out of the park."

Next came the case against Sen. John McCain and the GOP. Here Clinton went into his professorial mode, biting his lip, jabbing his finger to make a point and throwing wide his hands as a means of inviting the audience in on his wisdom as he cited a litany of Republican failings in domestic and foreign policy. The longest ovation of his speech came after a slap at the Bush administration's foreign policy propensities to go it alone and rely on force first. "People the world over," Clinton said, "have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of power."

At the end of this riff, Clinton paused, gathered in the audience and said, "They actually want us to reward them for the last eight years by giving them four more," a bewildered expression crossing his tanned face. "Let's send them a message that will echo from the Rockies all across America: Thanks, but no thanks. In this case, the third time is not the charm."

And finally Clinton brought it all together by linking his presidency to the prospect of a "President Obama" -- and in putting those two words together, it was as though he were finally, after months of reserve and hotheadedness, giving the new kid his blessing. Long gone was the Hillary Clinton campaign ad asking whom people might trust when the phone rang in the White House at 3 in the morning. Sixteen years ago, Bill Clinton said, the Republicans tried to diminish him by "saying I was too young and too inexperienced to be commander in chief. Sound familiar? It didn't work in 1992, because we were on the right side of history. And it won't work in 2008, because Barack Obama is on the right side of history."

It is the most repetitive theme of Clinton's political life: that he always finds a path to redemption when he is down, and in many ways he proved that again with this speech. And he might also have accomplished something larger and less self-centered -- by doing all he could to bring Obama up at the same time.

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