PHILADELPHIA — The Democratic Party tackled its biggest challenge of the election year here Tuesday night: to transform the way people think about Hillary Clinton.
Although she has been a fixture in American political life for a quarter-century — the mere mention of her first name triggers immediate reactions — the candidate and her image-makers argue that the country doesn’t know the real Hillary Clinton. So they devoted the second day of the Democratic National Convention, when Clinton made history as the first woman nominated for president by a major party, by trying to reveal just that.
A parade of supporters from all walks of life — led by husband Bill Clinton, whose long, folksy telling of their love story was the evening’s capstone — tried to open a window into Clinton’s character and motivations by sharing a medley of personal anecdotes.
Bill Clinton harked back to the spring of 1971, when he was a love-struck young man from Arkansas smitten by the brainy blonde he spotted across a law-school classroom.
“We’ve been walking and talking and laughing together ever since,” the former president said of the woman he would marry. “We’ve done it in good times and bad, through joy and heartbreak. . . . We built up a lifetime of memories.”
The clear takeaway was intended to be that Hillary Clinton makes things better. She makes people’s lives better. She has made his life better.
Bill Clinton appeared to riff extemporaneously in his 42-minute speech, veering off the prepared text loaded onto teleprompters, as he traced the arc of Hillary’s public service career as well as their marriage. Most of his stories were familiar ones to students of the Clintons and elicited knowing laughter from the audience in Wells Fargo Center. His remarks cast the would-be president as committed, compassionate, thoughtful, determined and genuine.
“Always making things better,” he said, adding: “She’s the best darn change maker I’ve ever met in my entire life.” It was one of his favorite lines about her on the campaign trail, as evidenced by the fact that delegates on the convention floor held placards that said, “Change maker.”
He said the Republicans who have long demonized his wife are trying to run against “a cartoon.” But he told the Democratic delegates: “Earlier today, you nominated the real one.”
Clinton concluded with an echo of the uplifting theme of his own 1992 campaign: “We’ve always been about tomorrow,” he said. “Your children and your grandchildren will bless you if you do.”
At the night’s end, the jumbotron flashed a photo gallery of the nation’s 44 presidents, all men and all but one of them white. Then it showed Hillary Clinton breaking through what looked like a plate of glass.
Beaming in live from New York, she said, “I can’t believe we just put the biggest crack in that glass ceiling yet. . . . If there are any little girls out there who stayed up late to watch, let me just say: I may become the first woman president, but one of you is next.”
Tuesday night’s program, billed as “Fights of Her Life,” amounted to a reintroduction of a public figure who is nearly universally known — and widely disliked. In an effort to improve the public’s view of her, speakers talked about Clinton’s work for women and families, social justice, health care, and global security, among other issues, as well as shared warm reflections on her as a friend.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has known the Clintons for decades, recalled Hillary playing mermaid in the pool with his daughter Sally, being the first to call to congratulate his son Jack on becoming an officer in the Marine Corps, and traveling through a blizzard to attend his father’s funeral.
“Hillary is tough,” McAuliffe said. “She’s determined. She is an amazing mother, grandmother and wife. And I know that she loves this country more than anything.”
The effort here to humanize and rewrite the narrative about Clinton is imperative in the view of her campaign strategists.
“People know her, but perhaps just being the kind of figure she is in public life, sometimes it’s a very two-dimensional sense of who she is as a public figure and a political figure,” John Podesta, her campaign chairman, told reporters Tuesday at a breakfast hosted by Bloomberg Politics.
Yet it could be argued that few figures in American life have been so scrutinized and analyzed as the former first lady, senator and secretary of state. She has written two best-selling memoirs herself, and her life has been the subject of enough books to fill a small library.
All of that has left most Americans with a distinct — and perhaps indelible — impression of how they feel about her. Were it not for Republican nominee Donald Trump, Clinton would be the most unpopular presidential nominee in modern times.
Public polls consistently show most voters do not believe Clinton is honest or trustworthy. As a campaigner, she can come off as stiff, scripted and aloof. Improving her favorability ratings and building up the trust of voters in her is essential. And failing to do so, many Democrats believe, may be the only thing that could cost her the White House.
So it was that dozens of people whose lives have intersected with Clinton’s took the stage here Tuesday night, one after another, giving testimonials to the Hillary they said they know. Their speeches were interspersed with a series of short, heavily-polished, biographical videos.
A partner at Cantor Fitzgerald who sustained burns on 82 percent of her body in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center: “Hillary showed up,” Lauren Manning said. “She walked into my hospital room and she took my bandaged hand into her own. Our connection wasn’t between a senator and her constituent. It was person to person.”
A man who grew up in the New York foster care system, moving from home to home with a trash bag as his suitcase and who caught a break in Washington because Clinton reserved an internship slot in her Senate office for foster kids: “She looked me in the eye and said, ‘Jelani, I’m proud of you,’” Jelani Freeman said. “I felt seen and heard — for the first time in my life.”
The mother of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black high school student fatally shot four years ago in Florida: “Hillary Clinton has the compassion and understanding to comfort a grieving mother,” Sybrina Fulton said.
And a young man with a rare form of dwarfism, who first got to know Clinton when he was 7 and she was first lady: “Every time I see Hillary, she remembers meaningful details about my life,” Ryan Moore planned to say. “She lifts my spirits.”
There were more speakers and more stories. One told of Clinton’s time as a law student researching child abuse — beatings, burnings and neglect — at Yale New Haven Hospital; another of her trek across rural Alabama in 1972 to shed light on unlawfully segregated public schools; and yet another on her investigation of South Carolina’s jails, which had been housing youths in the same prison cells as adults — research that led to juvenile justice reforms there.
Amid the tributes to Clinton, Tuesday night’s speakers also took time to deliver digs at Trump. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright asserted that the billionaire mogul has an affinity for dictators and suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin was rooting for Trump.
The Clinton anecdotes poured onto the stage following the traditional state-by-state roll-call vote that secured for her the 2,383 required delegates and made her nomination official.
In a bid to show party unity, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the runner-up for the nomination, appeared on the convention floor with the Vermont delegation at the end of the process and made a motion to suspend the rules and declare Clinton the nominee by acclamation.
With the motion seconded, a loud roar of ayes arose and the hall erupted in applause, making her the nominee at 6:56 p.m. Eastern time.
The orchestrated show of unity was a notable change from the opening day’s proceedings, though Sanders’s gesture did not bring all of his delegates into line. Through the evening, many of the seats reserved for the delegations from Alaska, Kansas, Maine and Oklahoma — all states Sanders won against Clinton — were largely empty. Some Sanders supporters exited the hall chanting, “Walkout! Walkout! Walkout!”
Tensions flared over the weekend when leaked internal emails showed some top officials at the Democratic National Committee exhibiting Clinton favoritism in the primaries. The controversy forced the resignation of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) as DNC chair.
Wasserman Schultz is being replaced by interim chair Donna Brazile, who on Tuesday night playfully sashayed onstage to address delegates. She recalled first meeting Clinton as a young woman at the Children’s Defense Fund.
“I was 21, feisty and ready to fight,” Brazile said. “And I remember thinking immediately, ‘Here is a woman who doesn’t mess around.’ Steel in her spine, Hillary didn’t want to talk about anything other than how to make children’s lives better. That’s the Hillary I know. That’s who she is.”
John Wagner contributed to this report.