Dispatch August 2008

Bill Clinton Is Back

"Given the pettiness of recent intraparty squabbling, in particular Clinton's own behavior in the primaries, his speech was a reminder of his astonishing political skill... his legacy and his future as his party's elder statesman are more than intact."

It's hard to know whose reputation was enhanced the most tonight: Barack Obama's, Bill Clinton's or Hillary Clinton's. I'd award the gold, silver, and bronze in that order, and place the additional laurel of "comeback player of the year" on Bill Clinton (with bonus points for brevity!). But I wouldn't quibble with anyone who wanted to put him in the top slot. Clinton's generous and selfless speech lifted all of them onto the podium.

Also see:

Hillary Goes Out With a Whimper (August 26, 2008)
"Clinton didn't seem angry or betrayed or entitled or any of the things that critics have attributed to her—she seemed merely unenthused, and so did the audience." By Joshua Green

Hillary's Speech (August 26, 2008)
"She was at her best... The delivery was phenomenal: passionate, forceful, and not the least bit false." By Clive Crook

The cable pundits I heard in the moments after his speech ended wrongly proclaimed that Clinton "echoed" his wife. He did far more than that: he combined the graciousness she displayed last night with the passion she couldn't quite muster, and reinforced her commitment to helping Obama this fall. He made the single most impassioned and convincing case I've heard for an Obama presidency, and one that seems like it will be hard to top. If I were Obama, I'd think about kidnapping him.

Given the pettiness of recent intraparty squabbling, in particular Clinton's own behavior in the primaries, the speech was a reminder of his astonishing political skill. Despite what he must feel, Clinton was convincingly magnanimous—downright effusive—toward Obama and Joe Biden. My instant impressions:

* Clinton rendered moot this week's spat over whether he should address national security or economics. He tackled each of them, and transcended both.

* He went beyond his wife by addressing clearly and unambiguously the question of qualification: "Barack Obama is ready to be president of the United States" and "Barack Obama is the man for the job." His vouching for Obama was especially effective for the personal way in which he framed it, invoking what he'd learned in eight years as president as the reason for his endorsement, and equating attacks on Obama's youth and inexperience with the ones he faced in 1992.

* He deftly recast the pernicious issue of Obama's "otherness" as being an admirable example of "the old-fashioned American dream." And he even did so under the strictures the Obama campaign did/did not impose on him, summoning Obama's polyglot family and global upbringing as having imbued him with "a unique capacity to lead our diverse nation in an evermore dependent world."

* Clinton framed McCain better than anyone has, striking just the right balance of respect for his service to country with pointed, specific and convincing criticisms of why he is the wrong man for the job.

There can't be much debate that if Obama wins, Clinton's legacy and his future as his party's elder statesman are more than intact. I'd say he acquitted himself well enough to have redeemed his image even if Obama loses. Either way, he's owed a nice gesture. Perhaps the Obama folks should clear out of the Ritz-Carlton tonight and turn it over to Clinton. He's earned it.

Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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