Bill Clinton Pulls Off a Presidential First: A First Lady Speech Delivered by a Man

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Bill Clinton speaks at the Democratic National Convention.
Bill Clinton speaks at the Democratic National Convention.Photo: Paul Morigi

Bill Clinton did a thing on Tuesday night that I wasn’t completely sure he was capable of: He moved deliberately, persuasively out of the spotlight and to the loyal side of his wife.

Going into Tuesday night’s prime-time convention broadcast, more than a few Hillary Clinton supporters and campaign staffers were jittery. Bill, Hillary’s magnetic, problematic husband of 41 years, a man who would have likely addressed the convention anyway as a former Democratic president of the United States, was scheduled to do so tonight in a history-making role. Hours after Hillary became the official nominee of her party — and officially the first woman ever nominated for the presidency by a major party — Bill would become the first man to speak at a national political convention in the role of aspiring First Spouse.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the first First Lady ever to address a national convention, when her husband was running as an incumbent in 1940. Pat Nixon was the first Republican wife to do it, in 1972, also when her husband was in office. Hillary herself did it in 1996. Most relevantly, Michelle Obama did it in 2008 and 2012, and carried a responsibility similar to Bill’s: easing America into a historic transition, helping voters accept a political partner who looks unlike those who have come before, in part, by humanizing that partner.

But Bill Clinton came into the night with a particular set of challenges. Certainly he remains one of the great political speechmakers of our time, and in 2012, delivered for Barack Obama a convention tour de force. But that speech had been perilously long, teetering on the razor’s edge between brilliance and parody. And too often in this election season, as in 2008, Bill has gotten in Hillary’s way on the campaign trail, unable to resist defending even his most regrettable policy measures — welfare reform, the 1994 crime bill — when challenged by protesters. He sometimes seems to have a difficult time remembering that this election isn’t about him.

Bill was reportedly working on his speech right up to the last minute, and the possibility that it could be a two-hour recap of his 1990s triumphs, or that he might get distracted by anti-Hillary hecklers in the audience, was all too real. Yes, the roar he received from the crowd in Philadelphia as he entered the arena was a reminder that this guy — this guy! this fuckin’ guy! — is Teflon; he can screw up and screw around and people still just love him. But there is the heart of the challenge: This convention is not about the fact that, even against its better judgment, America still loves Bill. It is about trying to persuade America to love Hillary.

And lo and behold, that is exactly where Bill Clinton started: with the story of falling in love with Hillary Rodham.

It was a risk — a big risk — for an epically unfaithful man, whose liaison with a young White House intern was an abuse of power that led to his impeachment, to begin his speech with the sentence, “In the spring of 1971, I met a girl.” But he went for it, with a self-aware grin that suggested he knew what he was doing: challenging the perception of his wife as sexless and his marriage as an empty sham based only on a shared will to power, by laying out a picture of a flesh-and-blood woman for whom he fell hard, more than 40 years ago. He was doing it, in part, by making the joke about his horn-dog impulses, and reminding people that he had once trained them on Hillary.

It’s ironic that, in politics and other male-dominated public spheres, one of the roadblocks for women is objectification and sexualization, but when it comes to Hillary Clinton, whose ambition and brains have long rendered her bloodless in the American imagination, hearing her described as an object of desire could feel corrective and bizarrely just. So he did it. He recalled his attraction to this young woman with “thick blonde hair,” big glasses, and no makeup, who “exuded this sense of strength and self-possession that I found magnetic.” Bill told of wanting to touch her on the back, but how he held himself back because he knew it wouldn’t be “just another tap on a shoulder,” and that he “might be starting something I couldn’t stop.” He told of how finally, after days in which he stared silently at her, she finally approached him and introduced herself: “I’m Hillary Rodham, who are you?” Bill described himself as “so impressed and surprised” by Hillary’s bold move that “believe it or not, momentarily, I was speechless.”

And I don’t believe it, exactly. I have read this story so many times; it has the ring of a meet-cute tale that has been repeated and embellished to the point of becoming more performed than remembered. But that’s okay: That’s humanizing too. It’s how our parents or grandparents tell their stories, again and again. There is a sentimental sweetness to this repetition, and the pleasure they both seem to take in it, that we don’t usually associate with either Clinton, but which Bill put on full display tonight.

Bill’s story went on and miraculously continued to focus on Hillary in the most human, intimate terms. He spoke of how he remembered her wearing a “long, white flowered skirt” the next time he saw her, recalled how he heard her “laugh that big laugh of hers.” He described meeting her “crusty, conservative father” and her mother, Dorothy, and that getting to know the latter “was one of the greatest gifts that Hillary ever gave me.”

“I married my best friend,” Bill said. It was a classic, wifely line. He was doing a familial thing, a spousal thing. He talked, remarkably, about Hillary’s water breaking and, many years later, the two of them moving Chelsea into her dorm room. It was so intimate, this view of a candidate whom we understand to be experienced and tough and prepared and all the other things it’s taken more than two centuries to convince America a woman can be, but whom we can now barely discern as human.

It was notable that Bill mentioned Michelle Obama so enthusiastically in his speech; in many ways, he was taking his cues from her, and he now hopes to share a category with her, a category once also occupied by his own wife — that of the brilliant and hugely overqualified presidential helpmate.

On this weird imbalance of marital power, Bill was thoughtful, describing how Hillary had “decided to take a huge chance” by putting her own professional prospects second to his, and following him to Arkansas. “She moved to a strange place, more rural and more culturally conservative than any place she’d ever lived before.” Bill wasn’t exactly expressing remorse about Hillary’s choice to follow him, but in noting it as a risk and a sacrifice of her own ambitions, he was grappling more honestly than most men of previous generations with the subsidiary realities of wifeliness as it has historically been understood and practiced.

Bill’s speech was far quieter than most he’s given. He didn’t talk about himself, barely mentioned his own presidential administration, didn’t outline policy or tear into Donald Trump. Instead, he described, in lengthy detail, Hillary’s career, her achievements, her commitments. It was a speech that conveyed deep admiration and awe for his wife, and also a reckoning with the gendered inequities of their relationship. Again and again, Bill noted the work she’d done, both as a professional and as a wife and mother, and held it up subtly against the more traditional public acclaim he’s received. “Speeches like this are fun,” he said. “Actually doing the work is hard.” Women as workhorses, men getting the glory. Hillary, he said late in his speech, “had done more positive change-making before she was 30 than many public officials do in a lifetime.”

And then, at the end, the speech turned elegiac. Bill looked old on Tuesday night, and you could feel his mortality weighing on him, as it has for some years. “I have lived a long, full, blessed life,” he said, “and it really took off when I met and fell in love with that girl.” He went on, “Those of us who have more yesterdays than tomorrows tend to care more about our children and grandchildren, and the reason you should elect her is that, in the greatest country on earth, we have always been about tomorrow.”

This treacly crescendo was notable mostly for the familiarity of its frame: the speaker advocating for the spouse in comfortably familial terms, appealing to voters through references to children and grandchildren. But for the first time, the spouse wasn’t a wife. It was a husband, who was managing, for once in his life, a moment of self-control and of submission. Bill was reversing the order of things by doing what Hillary had done for him so many years ago: putting himself and his ambitions and achievements and career second to hers.