At one point Begala, being mischievous but not without purpose, took out his iPad and showed Clinton a news story about Paul Ryan, who that morning in Iowa had snarked about 42’s impending speech, “My guess is we will get a great rendition of how good things were in the nineties, but we’re not going to hear much about how things have been the last four years.” Clinton chuckled and replied, “Well, you know, I guess he’s gonna be surprised.”
Clinton, indeed, was loaded for bear when it came to Ryan and Medicare, as well as on Medicaid and welfare. But beyond those discrete areas of policy, he was focused on answering a time-tested question that the Obamans had been stumbling over: Are you better off today than you were four years ago? “It’s difficult,” says Begala. “His former pollster, Stan Greenberg, has been vociferous on this point. Stan says, ‘If you try to tell people things have been great, they get angry with you, so don’t do it.’ But Clinton went right into the teeth of that.”
Clinton thought the answer was obvious and provable, but knew he could go further—invoking his own legacy not to boast but bolster Obama, providing a rejoinder more potent than any the president could offer. For more than an hour in the early afternoon, Clinton compulsively wordsmithed the single line that would be rendered thus: “No president—not me, not any of my predecessors, no one—could have repaired all of the damage that [Obama] found in just four years.” “He kept coming back to it and coming back to it and then rephrasing it again,” recalls Begala. “He intuitively got that that one line was the heart of the speech, the whole ballgame.”
Clinton was right about that, but the power of the line was much enhanced by what came a little earlier—the praise he heaped on Eisenhower, Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43. Initially, that paragraph had been preceded by one lauding all the Democratic presidents of his lifetime, but then Clinton decided to strike it. In elevating the Republicans alone, he realized, he would elevate himself, enhancing the perception of him as a neutral authority, not a partisan, and hence strengthening his later claim for Obama’s record. “It’s instinctual for him,” says Lockhart. “He said, ‘The way I’m going to make the second half of the speech work is doing the first part this way.’ ”
The rest of the afternoon was for cutting. Clinton had been allotted twenty minutes, but neither the folks in Chicago nor those in the room were addled enough to believe that he would not run over. Still, in an effort to show Chicago a draft not quite as long as Infinite Jest, thousands of words were sliced away. But with dusk setting in and Axelrod about to jump out of his skin at having not seen the text, the speech still had a small defect: no ending. “Well, I could just riff,” Clinton said, and everyone cracked up.
Around 7 p.m., just three hours before Clinton was set to take the stage, a draft was finally dispatched to Axelrod. Clinton took a nap, had a shower, then did a single rehearsal with a teleprompter in his suite around 9:15—clocking in at 28 minutes.
The speech Clinton proceeded to uncork onstage bore a passing resemblance to the one he rehearsed, but no more than that. The text as prepared for delivery was 3,279 words; as actually delivered it was 5,888 and consumed 49 minutes. Much of what had been cut that day Clinton reinserted on the fly, but many of the best lines—popping Ryan for having “some brass” on Medicare, and arguing that Hillary’s relationship with Obama was a healthy sign that democracy need not be a “blood sport”—were pure ad-libs. And for all the jesting about him just riffing his conclusion, that was exactly what he did, spinning out the tale about how George Washington was “criticized for being a mediocre surveyor with a bad set of false wooden teeth,” and about how America always “come[s] through every fire a little stronger and a little better.”
When the speech was over, and after Obama strode onstage and locked arms with Clinton, the current president was “pretty jazzed—and grateful,” recalls one of his advisers. As for the former one, he went out to a party and then back to his suite, reconvening around 2 a.m. with the white guys who’d been there all day and were now over the moon. “All of Charlotte was on a high,” Reed recalls. “But I don’t think anyone was higher than Clinton.”
If Clinton was the man of the hour in Charlotte, three weeks later in New York, at CGI, he demonstrated he was also the man to see. On the conference’s last day, Romney and Obama both paid obeisance to him by gracing the stage. The Republican opened with a well-turned line regarding Clinton’s introduction of him: “If there’s one thing we’ve learned in this election season, by the way, it’s that a few words from Bill Clinton can do a man a lot of good—all I gotta do now is wait a couple of days for that bounce to happen.” And Obama followed up in a similar vein: “Thank you for your very kind introduction—although I have to admit I really did like the speech a few weeks ago a little bit better.”