Clinton promptly clarified his comments and was fast forgiven by Chicago, and not just because, at a joint fund-raiser in New York with Obama days later, he dropped an anvil on Romney’s head, maintaining that his policies would be “calamitous for our country and the world.” By then, Clinton was all-in with the campaign—raising cash, narrating a web video, cutting his direct-to-camera ad. But the biggest ask was yet to come: that Clinton take the stage as the marquee act for one night of the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. On July 25, Obama called Clinton and formally offered him the gig.
The heft of the burden being laid on Clinton’s shoulders is hard to overstate. With the convention consuming only three prime-time broadcast TV hours—the first dominated by Michelle Obama and focused on her husband’s character, and the third by Obama and his vision of the future—Clinton would be required both to clarify the choice between Obama and Romney and to vouch for the president’s economic stewardship, the one area in which the Republican enjoyed a persistent lead in the polls. “I saw [senior White House adviser David] Plouffe a few weeks before the convention,” says a prominent Democrat. “He made no bones about the fact that Clinton’s speech was far more important than Obama’s, because Clinton is an economic arbiter like no other.”
Clinton, who Maraniss has written “loves to be needed as much as he needs to be loved,” was delighted—and set about tackling his assignment so early that it startled his longtime adjutants. “Several weeks before the speech, his assistant called me and said, ‘The president wants input from a lot of people. Can you send us something?’ ” recalls Paul Begala. “A week or two later, I hadn’t quite gotten around to it, and he called me personally and said, ‘I haven’t gotten anything from you.’ This is weeks before the speech! He never does that!”
Clinton wasn’t just seeking input: He was jonesing for facts and figures, constantly demanding them from Bruce Reed and Gene Sperling, two Obama-administration officials who also served Clinton and who’d been assigned to help with the speech. For four years, his most acute frustration with Obama has been over his inability or unwillingness to make the case for his achievements, to sell them to the country. Now Clinton saw an opportunity, and even a responsibility, to remedy the shortcoming. As he was brainstorming the speech, Clinton chanted one sentence like a mantra: “People need education, not eloquence.”
Though Axelrod was in communication with Clinton, he was all too aware Chicago would have no input into the speech—which made him and his colleagues a touch queasy. “It took a leap of faith for them to do something they weren’t scripting,” says someone intimately involved with the process. “It was a week after Clint Eastwood, and the campaign was politely wondering, ‘Um, when are we going to see it?’ ” Which put Reed and Sperling in the position of having to calm the horses. “We had to remind them,” Reed tells me, “that Clintonworld has always run on a just-in-time business model.”
Clinton rolled into Charlotte late on the night before his speech, then stayed up until 3 a.m. laboring over it. The next morning, he summoned an assortment of his oldest and most trusted hands—Begala, Podesta, Reed, Sperling, plus former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart, former national-security adviser Sandy Berger, and Hillary’s infamous Svengali Mark Penn—to his suite at the Hilton to assist him in bringing the thing in for a landing.
For everyone in the room that day, the scene was at once intoxicatingly and achingly familiar. All had worked on innumerable high-stakes Clinton speeches in years past, from convention addresses to States of the Union to Election Night orations, and virtually every one had been just like this: a bunch of white guys around a table playing verbal pepper with the boss; Clinton armed with his yellow legal and a Sharpie, scratching out stanzas in his nearly illegible southpaw scrawl, handing them to his assistant to be typed up and printed out, and then furiously crossing out what he’d written and scribbling something new—periodically interrupting the flow to regale everyone with the latest jokes he’d heard.
Despite all the work Clinton had done beforehand, the speech was no more than half-written when his former aides arrived and already was way too long. But having seen this movie many times before, none were freaked or fazed. “Clinton is like a jazz musician,” Reed says. “He knows all the songs. The only questions are which ones is he going to play, which ones fit together best, and in what order?”