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PHILADELPHIA — Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention late Tuesday was part grandfatherly musings, part nostalgic love story, part family history, part political memoir and entirely about portraying his wife as trustworthy, authentic and an agent of change for voters sick of the status quo.
Republicans fearful of Hillary Clinton’s appeal used their convention to draw a “cartoon alternative” of her, he charged.
“Cartoons are two-dimensional, they’re easy to absorb,” said Clinton. “Life in the real world is complicated, and real change is hard. And a lot of people even think it’s boring.” He continued, “Good for you, because earlier today, you nominated the real one.”
Four years after his folksy and feisty address at the 2012 convention led President Obama to dub him “secretary of explainin’ stuff,” Clinton treated Democrats packed into the Wells Fargo Center here to an affectionate, and often wistful, biographical portrait of 45 years of private and public life with the former first lady, senator and secretary of state.
His characteristic hoarse voice took rapt party faithful from the beginning of their story — “In the spring of 1971, I met a girl” — through his attempts to get her to marry him, their life in Arkansas and his political rise, fall and rise. He took them through his presidency, mentioning her failed effort to overhaul American health care but omitting his impeachment. All the way through, Bill Clinton noted his wife’s commitment to family, from her parents and siblings to their daughter, Chelsea, who will address the hall on Thursday. He spoke of their wedding, Chelsea’s birth and their struggle when their daughter went off to college.
He summed up a day of testimonials from people touched and helped by Hillary Clinton’s advocacy — in public and in private.
What he called the “real” Hillary “has earned the loyalty, the respect and the fervent support of people who have worked with her in every stage of her life, including leaders around the world who know her to be able, straightforward and completely trustworthy,” he said. “The real one calls you when you’re sick, when your kid’s in trouble or when there’s a death in the family.”
If the speech seemed at times to meander, its message went straight for some of Hillary’s most serious vulnerabilities: that she is untrustworthy, that she cannot relate to ordinary voters’ dreams and fears, and that electing her will chart a more-of-the-same course for a country always looking for change.
“This woman has never been satisfied with the status quo in anything,” he said. “She’s insatiably curious, she’s a natural leader, she’s a good organizer and she’s the best darn change-maker I ever met in my entire life.”
Democrats packed in the arena cheered and clapped, but more telling was their focused silence as the former two-term president made himself a character witness to Hillary Clinton’s personal and professional qualifications for holding the highest office in the land.
He spoke of her deep Methodist faith and her conversion from “Goldwater Girl” to Democrat, powered by what he summed up as her support for civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War.
He highlighted a lifetime of Hillary’s advocacy, for prison reform, against segregation and for disabled children.
“She never made fun of people with disabilities; she tried to empower them based on their abilities,” he said. It was one of just a few lines recognizable as knocks on Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who once mocked a disabled reporter while speaking at a campaign rally.
But even as he took a shot at the brash entrepreneur, Clinton vouched for his wife’s ability to work with Republicans. He cited praise from such stalwart Clinton opponents as Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who now supports Trump, or Tom DeLay, the sharp-elbowed Texas lawmaker who served as Republican House majority leader.
“This is a really important point for you to take out of this convention: If you believe in making change from the bottom up, if you believe the measure of change is how many people’s lives are better, you know it’s hard — and some people think it’s boring,” he said. “Speeches like this are fun. Actually doing the work is hard.”
Clinton continued: “So people say, well, ‘We need to change. She’s been around a long time.’ She sure has, and she’s sure been worth every single year she’s put into making people’s lives better.”
There were Clintonian flourishes, in style and substance. He spoke of Hillary’s efforts to battle extremist messages online, adding, “We’ve got to win this battle in the mind field.” He mentioned the recent assassinations of police officers and the deaths of young black men at the hands of law enforcement, all the while playing middle-way peacemaker. “If you’re a young African-American, disillusioned and afraid, we saw in Dallas how great our police officers can be. Help us build a future where nobody is afraid to walk outside, including the people that wear blue to protect our future,” he said.
“When I was president, I worked hard to give you more peace and shared prosperity, to give you an America where nobody is invisible or counted out,” he said. “But for this time, Hillary is uniquely qualified to seize the opportunities and reduce the risks we face. And she is still the best darn change-maker I have ever known.”