Democratic National Convention: Bill Clinton Makes the Case for Four More Years

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Former President Bill Clinton had the Charlotte crowd (and probably many people watching at home) eating out of his hand Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention, as he made an eloquent, exhaustive case for re-electing his party to the White House for four more years. Seriously, after last night’s speech, he could win another four years in the presidency. Oh, but he was there to endorse Barack Obama… right…

With his charisma, his common touch, and his mastery of the crowd, Clinton is often likened to a rock star, and the comparison was apt, given the way he played his audience like a saxophone on Wednesday. But maybe an even better comparison for his performance would be a really good episode of Matlock.

Yes, ‘Matlock,’ the old Andy Griffith courtroom show. Here’s why.

On Grandpa Simpson’s favorite legal drama, Griffith (who was an Obama supporter, by the way) was a crafty old Southern lawyer who had a way of marshaling facts to defend his clients in a way that involved him quietly but firmly explaining difficult truths in a simple, folksy way that anyone could understand. So it was with crafty old Southern lawyer Bill Clinton (looking smoother and younger and more vigorous than his 66 years), laying out a defense of Obama while dismantling piece by piece the Republican case against him, all in simple, homespun language.

He summarized the GOP’s argument against Obama this way: “We left a mess. He has not cleaned it up fast enough, so put us back in.” Of that mess, he said, “No president — no president — not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.”

Taking on Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who had the same speaking slot at the Republican National Convention a week ago, Clinton noted that the same Medicare cuts for which he’d blasted the president were also a feature, to the dollar, in Ryan’s own proposed budget. “You gotta give him one thing,” Clinton said, “it takes some brass to attack a guy for doin’ what you did.”

Of course, in arguing that Obama would continue or reinstate the policies that had led to economic growth when Clinton was president 20 years ago, Clinton was making the case as much for himself as for Obama. One was left to wonder who was doing whom a favor here, or even if the two men were really as friendly and mutually supportive as Clinton had suggested at the beginning of his speech. Was there still bad blood between them over the bitterly fought 2008 primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton, or had Obama mended the wound by appointing Mrs. Clinton as his secretary of state? By the time the president himself finally appeared, after Clinton’s speech had run 20 minutes overtime, was he not a little bit frustrated? The awkward, stiff, very quick embrace between the two men hinted at backstage drama viewers could only guess at.

Before Clinton’s speech there was a parade of people at the podium, mostly women (blink and you’d have missed American Idol’s Jessica Sanchez performing a quick number), mostly lightning rods for controversy. Sandra Fluke, the law student so relentlessly mocked by Rush Limbaugh earlier this year for her advocacy of insurance coverage for birth control, painted a nightmarish picture of a Handmaid’s Tale-like future for women if the Republicans win. Cecile Richards, head of the embattled Planned Parenthood, made a similar charge, likening alleged Republican sexism to “a bad episode of Mad Men.” Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, looking and sounding like the Sunday school teacher she used to be, told viewers that the economic system is rigged against them and attacked Mitt Romney for his remark that “corporations are people.” The intellectual architect of Obama’s now-notorious “You didn’t build that” speech in July, she, too, proved skilled at explaining thorny ecopnomic issues in simple, everyday language.

But she, like nearly everyone else on Wednesday, seemed bum-rushed so that there would be enough time for Clinton to talk for a half hour before primetime coverage ended. Yet after all that, his ad libs and cracker-barrel rhetorical flourishes dragged his speaking time out to nearly an hour, going well past 11 PM. Still, he was magnetic, and it’s hard to imagine anyone in the hall wanted him to cut his speech short. Except, maybe, for President Obama.

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