Bill Clinton’s Dance with America

by Roger B. Blumberg

“Seriously, that was an awesome speech. Clinton isn’t just an amazing political talent; he has the ability to make wonkery accessible and compelling.”

Paul Krugman, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” September 6, 2012

Former President Clinton’s speech to the 2012 Democratic National Convention brought back two fond memories. The first was of the excitement of the 1992 campaign, and specifically the ways that candidate Clinton was able to talk to audiences of every age and stripe about the challenges facing the United States. He would address a group of factory workers, for example, and explain that the American future depended on their realizing that there wouldn’t be factory work for many if not most of their children. He presented a version of ideas from Robert Reich’s The Work of Nations (1991) so successfully, it seemed, that you believed the country was ready for the serious economic transition that Reich claimed was required. Whether the diagnosis was accurate or not seemed less important than the fact that workers in particular appeared to listen and understand Clinton, not liking some of the news of course, but seeming to appreciate that he made good sense, treated them like adults, and appeared to take their lives and futures so seriously.

Workers applauded Clinton and helped elect him in 1992, but in the years that followed it was puzzling how quickly they turned on him. Puzzling, that is, if they had really understood what he had been telling them during the campaign.

And then there was the second memory, from 2005, when Former President Clinton came to Brown University at the end of the Spring semester to deliver what was billed as a “major policy speech.” Clinton’s presence inspired exceptional interest among the students, and tickets for his speech in the Meehan Rink were quickly and completely claimed so that sites for large-screen simulcasts had to be made available. His speech thrilled students and faculty alike, and I heard from colleagues that the exchange of tributes between Clinton and Brown President Ruth Simmons left not a dry eye in the house.

I missed the speech, having scheduled office hours for my Freshman advisees that afternoon in order to sign their pre-registration cards for the following semester (due by 5 p.m. the day of the speech), and one student in particular was late for his appointment because he had gone to hear Clinton. He was a native-born Korean who had come to Brown to study computer science, and because of what appeared after two semesters to be an exclusive academic focus on math and science I was impressed to hear that he had made the effort to get a ticket. He apologized for arriving late and I told him I didn’t care about that but would be interested to hear about the speech.

Was he able to get a ticket for a seat in the Rink? He was. Had President Simmons given a good introduction? She had. Was Clinton’s talk interesting? It was great, he said. Fantastic, he added. He’s a wonderful speaker, he said. Was the talk well-received? Very, he said. I then asked: What did he talk about?

“I don’t know,” he said, with a slight smile, with some regret perhaps, but no sense that the answer undermined his judgement much less the thrill. I had to smile too, but I was a little crest-fallen and thought: Right: this is what the Democrats hadn’t understood when Al Gore ran against George W. Bush in 2000. Like Clinton, Bush made people feel something that had little or nothing to do with what he was saying, while with Gore you had to understand what he was saying and believe it in order to feel something like that. As the Freshman and I talked about Clinton’s continued appeal in 2005 I thought too that most of the workers who liked Clinton so much in 1992 probably couldn’t have reported what he had said, then or now.

So last night, encouraged by two nights of a genuine antidote to the robotics in Tampa, I especially enjoyed hearing the old Clinton. He does the folksy thing so well that you have to admire it even when you see it’s shtick, and he packs more substance into a speech than any national candidate we’ve heard since. The pleasure he seems to take in policy and history and “the facts” remains genuinely infectious, and he raises the bar for Americans in a way we need in 2012 even more than we did twenty years ago. But as far as thinking that most of the people who called his speech wonderful and great today really found the ideas and arguments compelling …. perhaps it’s best not to ask.

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