On Wednesday night, Bill Clinton spoke at the Democratic National Convention. And spoke. And spoke.
His speech went on for 50 minutes. It was like Return of the King, except that you kept thinking Return of the King was about to end, and the longer Clinton spoke, the more convinced you became that his speech wouldn’t. Sensing that the speech was going to take a while, I got up, made myself a sandwich, sat down, picked up Ulysses, read it from start to finish, raised three beautiful children, and darted back to the television just in time to see him flip to the fourth page.
I am not saying it was long. The prepared remarks weren’t long. It was the unprepared remarks that did it. It didn’t feel long. It was like childhood: quite interesting in parts, mostly spent in the nineties, and there were eight years when Bill Clinton was there and talking. No wonder he and Newt Gingrich got along so well. This speech was an eight-hour Lincoln-Douglas debate for one.
I tried to make a list of things longer than Clinton’s speech. So far I have come up with: William Henry Harrison’s inaugural, Edward Everett’s address at Gettysburg, and the American Civil War.
It was like the FDR administration, in the sense that it went on a very long time, the Democrats loved it, and when it was over you had no recollection of what life had been like without it.
It was too big to fail. It was almost too big to check. It would be like fact checking a century. At dawn tomorrow, I am going to see the factcheckers off on their long voyage into miles and miles of wild, verdant speech. I expect them to write me every month to offer an update on their progress. Perhaps they will return by 2016 with a report.
Then again I only dimly recollect the Clinton era. To me, it was a time of Pokemon and prosperity during which your fifth-grade teacher had to awkwardly explain specific sex acts. But everyone who was there in ’88 assures me that his speech then was easily as long, if not longer.
It was like the first phone conversation with a friend you haven’t spoken to in years. Everything comes up. Several hours later you put the phone down, having heard opinions on everything from last week’s convention speeches to health-care reform to the magnitude of the economic crisis.
But the thing that set this apart from most 50ish-minute speeches is that people actually seemed to be paying attention.
“Listen,” Clinton kept saying. “Listen to this.” And people did.
He’s Reaganing awfully fast, in the sense that all you have to do is say his name and people get starry-eyed and remember a Better Time, an Era when milk and honey flowed in the streets and politicians had cross-over appeal.
Of course, like most long phone conversations, the top of the hour is pure magic. You remember why you were such friends. You reminisce about old times. The middle flies by. But the last ten minutes begin to cloy. By the time the final words come to your ear, you are beginning slowly to recollect why it had been so long since you last spoke.
But never mind. You set the phone down, glowing, excited at the sight of a president who seems genuinely excited to see you, who has nothing better to do with his time than ramble gamely for hours about policy. Newt Gingrich keeps offering, but he is no substitute. Mitt tried once, but it turned into an hour of his reading you excepts from spreadsheets that changed his life. President Obama — he gives a good speech, but speaking is different than talking. Obama speaks. Clinton talks. It’s a good thing Obama took the stage when he did, or the crowd might have made Clinton Caesar by sudden acclaim.
It was hard not to like the speech. Possibly it was Stockholm Syndrome. But still. If America had to pick someone to spend several weeks trapped in a speech with, we’d go for Clinton every time.