Thursday 06 Sep 2012

“The hoarse whisperer” stupefies his audience

Last night, another aging superstar strode onto the stage at a convention, preceded both by mounting anticipation from the crowd and the chewed lower lips of campaign aides who were kept in the dark about his speech till the very last minute.

The superstar sounded hoarse. He looked a little gaunt thanks to a strict Vegan diet and his wispy white hair defied the iron rule of hairspray. But this superstar didn’t talk to an empty chair. He didn’t mumble. And he didn’t need a rhetorical Zimmerframe.

Unlike Clint Eastwood, he DID make the convention’s day. Bill Clinton reminded his audience last night what politics can sound like. In a speech which veered confidently off the autocue but never off its argument he did something unique in this convention season. He wasn’t trying to outdo the last speaker in the humble roots credentials – although Bill’s were trailer-park humble enough- and he didn’t mention the American Dream once.

He stepped out of the pungent vapour of vagueness and talked policy. Forensically he laid out the attacks against Barack Obama and then dismantled them in a way that the president himself has so far failed to do. Bill Clinton has always been a policy wonk. And not always easy on the ear.

 In the 1988 Democratic convention he stupefied the audience with a speech for Michael Dukakis whose biggest applause line was “in closing”. Since then, Bill has learned a trick or two about public speaking. Last night was his ninth convention speech, one for every comeback of the eternal comeback kid. This speech was one of his best.

He addressed 20,000 people in the hall and millions on their sofas as if he was having a conversation. He soared, chuckled, prodded and confided like “the hoarse whisperer of the middle class”, as the Washington Post described him. He engaged the audience as if they expected and deserved more than just guff about love and sacrifice.

He was funny, wise and poignant. “Democracy doesn’t have to be a bloodsport”, he told a country that is exhausted by the petty trench warfare of Washington, a country that once saw this bloodsport turn into a civil war.

He reminded them how in his day Democrats and Republicans didn’t hate each other so much that they couldn’t strike deals. This is true. Even Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House tweeted today that he and Bill worked together, adding that “Obama is no Bill Clinton”.

Neither mentioned the unseemly Monica Lewinsky business or the impeachment trail, or Hillary’s admonitions of “vast right wing conspiracy” or Newt’s libidinous hypocrisy, all of which set the stage for the tribal wars we have had ever since. But in an election that has managed to be both poisonous and vapid on both sides, Bill’s crunchy policy granola was delicious and healthy.

In a sumptuous fact check fest, he tried to set the record straight on the past. Tonight Barack Obama needs to give us a clue what he intends to do with the next four years.

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