Beauty, Honor, Country
Blogging from the Democratic Convention.
Please. If you're going to teach history, learn some first. 1:42 p.m. ET
Monday, July 26, 2004
I thought Gore's speech was terrific and well-received. But his reception was nothing like Hillary's. Even before she walks onstage, the mere mention of her name by convention emcee Bill Richardson brings the house down. For the first time all night, the roar becomes so loud I have to press my fingers against my ears.
Her speech is soporific, a collage of the usual expensive promises: health insurance for all, more funding for first responders, more benefits for veterans, and, of course, more money for New York City. "I know a thing or two about health care," she adds, and everyone laughs. But this crowd, including Hillary, thinks the joke is just about bad politics. They don't understand that it was bad policymaking, too.
No matter. Hillary knows she'll end with the night's surest applause line, introducing her husband. The place goes nuts as Bill strides forward. You have to see him standing where lesser mortals have stood—in this case at the podium 100 feet from me—to appreciate what an imposing figure he cuts. The frost that has covered his hair since he left office accentuates the effect. In the arena, far more so than on the TV screen, he looks so majestic you almost can't believe the trashy, pointless, inconsequential way in which he disgraced his office.
Clinton, the male version, is the night's last speaker, and he uses that position to pull together the strands of the preceding speeches. He praises Carter, who mistrusted him, and Gore, who came to resent him. In Clinton's all-forgiving, self-forgiving world, they and he and all Democrats are united. Next to patching things up with Hillary and Chelsea, this reconciliation is a piece of cake.
The tribute to Gore is painfully telling. Gore showed tremendous patriotism and grace during and after the 2000 recount, Clinton recalls. Indeed, Gore "is the living embodiment" of the principle that "every vote counts." In short, Gore will be remembered, even by his allies, as a good loser and an inanimate emblem.
All speeches at this convention are supposed to be positive, or at least to look positive. Clinton illustrates the difference. He promises "a positive campaign," unlike the nasty, negative campaign Republicans are running. Borrowing a page from Newt Gingrich (who loved to credit the sincere belief of "our liberal friends" in this or that perversion), Clinton stresses that the two parties have "fundamentally different views." Democrats believe in shared responsibilities, shared benefits, global cooperation, and giving everyone the tools to make the most of their lives. Republicans believe in clubbing baby seals. Well, not quite. According to Clinton, Republicans actually believe in elitist authoritarianism and concentrating wealth. But the message is almost as coarse. "They need a divided America," he concludes divisively. "But we don't."
Clinton can be almost as funny as Gore. He gets a round of laughter by marveling that since he left office and joined the GOP's favorite tax bracket, Republicans have become, through their tax policies, downright friendly to him. Then he twists the blade, explaining that he decided not to send Republicans a thank-you note for his tax cut because he realized that working folks were paying for it. Substantively, Clinton's speech isn't very different from his wife's; the GOP has shamefully defunded this program or that one, whereas Democrats will fund it. But the difference between his presentation and hers is the difference between singing and reciting. The delegates rise and applaud as he pounds the podium.
If you don't like what the Republicans are doing—taking cops off the street, putting tax cuts for the rich before homeland security—"take a look at John Kerry, John Edwards, and the Democrats," Clinton concludes. That's the most effective pitch of the evening, and it's not surprising that Clinton, the only Democrat in 20 years who has proved himself effective as a political strategist, was the one to figure it out. But by now, it's almost 11 p.m. Eastern Time, and Clinton's blistering rush to finish his speech before the networks sign off has failed. A speech that should have started 15 minutes earlier, to let the night's best speaker play out his "take a look" message, has been pushed to the edge of prime time and compressed to a pace difficult to follow. If only they'd given Clinton more minutes at the podium in exchange for fewer pages in his memoir.
The worst loss for the Democrats in this clock mismanagement is their failure to capitalize on Clinton's presidency as a success story. Kerry has been far more eager than Gore ever was to embrace and exploit Clinton's record of peace and prosperity. And Clinton tries to make that point tonight. We tried it the Republicans' way for 12 years, he says. Then we tried it our way for eight years. Then their way for another four. "Our way works better," he says.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photographs of: Barack Obama by Gary Hershorn/Reuters; John Edwards on Slate's home page by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters.