Clinton was always going to talk about himself at the DNC—it’s what he does. In his seven previous DNC speeches, Clinton told his own story, sometimes poorly (1988), sometimes well (1992), and sometimes when he was ostensibly telling someone else’s (2012). Clinton has never seen an autobiographical detail or anecdote he didn’t like, and the relish with which he talks about himself is perversely one of the qualities that makes him so charming as a speaker.
Clinton’s 2016 DNC speech, however, was something of a bait and switch. He opened by telling the story of his relationship with his wife from his perspective—some of that taken nearly word for word from his memoir My Life—and for the first five or so minutes made it seem like he was going to stick to that perspective. We met the young couple when Bill was an eager young college student too shy to ask Hillary out on a date. All we got from this section was Bill’s point of view, so all we got was a detached and intimidating Hillary who was determined to do things her way. Everything Hillary did in this early section of the speech made her more intimidating and out of reach—Bill was impressed when she spoke to him first and asked him out, but he was also speechless.
The fact that Bill opened with a courtship story made a lot of people nervous, myself included. But it was intentional: It was meant to mimic his audience’s skepticism of Hillary at first, and then use it to make them fall in love with her. As Bill gets to know Hillary, he quickly realizes that the qualities that made her seem intimidating and out of reach were actually qualities that made her more human: They stemmed from an unquenchable drive to get things done and an impatience with those who weren’t as committed to productive social change. Hillary, in Bill’s telling, is idealistic and practical, someone who is so determined that she sometimes loses sight of everything else.
It was, in a lot of ways, the speech that you’d expect from the spouse of a political candidate—it took the policy details that they sell on the stump and colored in humanistic detail. The one difference, of course, was that one of the greatest orators of the last 50 years was giving the speech. Yes, there was a certain sheen to it—Bill leans into his forced folksiness in times of high stress—but it was also a powerful reintroduction to Hillary Clinton the person.