The unlikely presidential nominee grew up without knowing his biological father. He was raised by a single mom and, when she was away, by his grandparents. As an adolescent, he memorized speeches by John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and made a point of making friends from other ethnic backgrounds. As a youngster, he was known by a different name, and, as a presidential candidate, he had to remind the voters that he was not from a privileged background. Unsure of his own identity, he was anchored by his marriage to a strong woman, with roots in Chicago and her own career as an attorney.
In many ways, this describes Barack Obama. But it, too, is a thumbnail sketch of the background of Bill Clinton. And, even if Hillary Clinton hadn’t been the runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bill Clinton might still be ambivalent about delivering a speech at Obama’s convention. Certainly, Clinton could be forgiven if he looks at Obama and sees his younger self--and a glimpse of his own mortality and the problematic nature of his legacy. Combine that with his wife’s defeat in the primaries and the tarnishing of his reputation as a racial healer, and it is understandable why so commentators think this speech is about Clinton’s quest for redemption at least as much as Obama’s campaign for the presidency.
Clinton often expounds on his theory that every human being--particularly those in positions of prominence--must grapple with his demons and give voice to his angels. He has played out these dramas in each of his national convention speeches, especially when he was not seeking the presidency himself. In 1988, Clinton submerged his ego along with his oratorical talent, dutifully delivering a nominating speech for Michael Dukakis that had been drafted by the nominee’s staff. Clinton droned on and on, and the only applause line came when he finally said “in closing.” The experience understandably reinforced his reluctance to be scripted, encouraging his instinct to speak extemporaneously--a high-wire act that produces many inspiring speeches and some embarrassing remarks, but keeps him interesting after two decades on the national stage.
In 2000, as a lame duck president, Clinton yielded to his demons, delivering a self-referential speech that did little to advance the candidacy of his vice president, Al Gore. But, in 2004, when the Democrats selected a nominee who had never been a rival or underling of his, Clinton was remarkably unselfish, making himself the foil, while praising John Kerry for serving in Vietnam (as Clinton admitted that he, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney had not) and attacking Bush for cutting taxes on rich people (among whom Clinton now numbered himself).
So which Clinton will show up tonight? Almost certainly the unselfish Clinton, if only out of enlightened self-interest after a primary campaign in which he lost much of his reputation as a brilliant strategist and racial healer. Clinton understands that if he is seen as undermining Obama in any way, future conventions will feature him the way Jimmy Carter was presented on Monday night--with a video about his good works, but no speaking spot.
What will an unselfish Clinton say? If he’s at his best, he’ll begin with prose and conclude with poetry. First, he’ll explain the principles that produced the peace and prosperity of the Clinton years. He’ll declare that, allowing for changing times, Obama will carry forward the pragmatic progressive tradition that successful Democratic presidents have followed. Asking the wealthy to pay their fair share; investing in education, transportation, and technology; uniting Americans at home and strengthening alliances abroad--these are proven principles that Bush ignored and Obama will uphold.
But, “in closing,” Clinton can translate his kinship with Obama into eloquence, not envy. Clinton of all people understands how a charismatic young candidate can defeat aging war heroes who have stooped to unsavory backlash politics. Making himself the foil for his own argument, as he did at the 2004 convention, Cinton can acknowledge that there were very real doubts about his own readiness in 1992, just as there were about other presidents from Abraham Lincoln to John Kennedy. But, at every decisive moment, he could continue, Americans have chosen hope over fear, the future over the past. As he has done so often, Clinton can counsel his fellow citizens not to stop thinking about tomorrow. Once that future was exemplified by Bill; now it belongs to Barack.
David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America's Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever.