Bill Clinton is fond of telling a story about his commitment, at times halting, to playing the part of political spouse to Hillary Clinton, as she’s made the climb from senator from New York to Secretary of State, and now to the Democrats’ presidential nominee.
“When I left the White House and Hillary went into the Senate in New York, I told her, I said, ‘For 26 years you have made a lot of sacrifices for my public life. So I’ll give you the next 26 years and if I’m still around we will fight about what we are going to do after that,’” Clinton said in an interview with CNN two years ago. “So we are just over a little halfway through the second 26 years and whatever she wants is fine with me.”
He didn’t tell that story in his keynote address at the Democratic convention Tuesday night, but he hinted at it. The unspoken purpose of Clinton’s speech was to make good on his half of the commitment. And the unspoken confession was that for the first 26 years, she did a lot of the heavy lifting behind the scenes on his behalf, the brass tacks of public service, while he politicked and traveled and made “fun” speeches. Illustrating this point required Clinton to run through a nearly 30-minute chronology, year by year, starting in 1971, of their life together—a recitation that drew gentle mockery on social media from reporters (including me) who wondered if he would go on too long.
We were wrong to wonder.
Clinton wasn’t there to atone for benefiting from her work ethic, or for at times being as much of an impediment as an asset to her political career. As NPR’s Steve Inskeep wrote, “he’s painting an extended portrait of a human being, who’s often talked about as if she isn’t.”
Clinton gave an audience of millions, most of whom don’t have time to read political biographies, a different framework for understanding his wife. His implicit point was that Hillary spent the first 26 years of their 52-year bargain gaining all of the skills required to be a political leader, and experiencing all of the partisan scrutiny of a political principal, but without the platform or hardscrabble upbringing required to shape her identity, the way he did as a boy from Hope, or John Edwards did as the son of a millworker.
Before her 26 years began, Hillary had already been defined as a shrew and a criminal by the same political enemies who now join the conservative grassroots in chanting for her imprisonment. On Tuesday night her husband sought to redefine her, by telling the story of the first 40-some years of that bargain, marked not by ghoulish conspiracy theories like the ones surrounding Benghazi and the death of Vince Foster, but by the behind-the-scenes diligence that powered everything she did. Her parenting while he watched a Police Academy marathon, her successful collaboration with Republicans in Congress (most of whom raved about her when they worked together), her success at “put[ting] climate change at the center of our foreign policy,” and everything in between.
Well, not everything. Clinton painted over all the blemishes—on their relationship, on her judgment over the years, of the cynicism she’s developed. But the portrait that emerged, however belatedly, was much closer to the mark than the caricature that Republicans drew last week.
“How does this square with the things you heard at the [Republican convention]?,” Clinton asked “You can’t. One is real. And one is made up. … You nominated the real one.”
The GOP’s reflexive response to this speech, and certainly Donald Trump’s reflexive response, will be to train all their sights on her, relitigate some imagined or overblown controversy, hoping to ensure that a more favorable impression of Hillary doesn’t harden. And they’ll do it because they know his speech was good, and, at bottom, more believable than the story they tell.