Bill Clinton Repays His Debt

Four decades after he asked his wife to set aside her own ambitions, he asked Americans to return her to the White House in her own right.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

On Tuesday night, Bill Clinton spoke before thousands of delegates at the Democratic National Convention, and did his best to repay a debt he’d incurred 45 years before. He met Hillary in 1971, and she married him four years later. “I really hope,” he said, “that her choosing me and rejecting my advice to pursue her own career was a decision she would never regret.”

Now, as she pursues the presidency in her own right, he took the opportunity to reintroduce her to the public, spending most of his time on stage rehearsing the years before she became a national figure. “Cartoons are two-dimensional,” Clinton said, and did his best to render his wife vivid, human, and real.

It was a speech that aimed to move past some of the central paradoxes of Clinton’s candidacy. She sacrificed her ambitions to advance her husband’s career, but his success has now enabled her own rise. Most Americans view her unfavorably, and yet she has just become the first woman to be a major-party nominee for the president.

Bill Clinton started over. He asked Americans to meet Hillary again, as if for the first time, as a young law student. “She had thick, blonde hair, big glasses, and wore no makeup,” he said. “She exuded this strength of self possession I found magnetic.” And he retold the story of their romance.

He gave America Hillary as a mother, with an unforgettable line. “Fifteen minutes after I got home from the National Governors Conference in Washington,” he said, “Hillary's water broke and off we went to the hospital.” It was both an anecdote to which any parent might relate, and also a reminder of just how unprecedented it is for a woman to be a major-party nominee.

Story after story piled up, most told often before, yet no less effective for it. Clinton’s delivery seemed more extemporaneous than rehearsed, even as he served up well-worn passages from his memoir. It also formed a striking contrast to how Hillary most often presents herself. She focuses on her record of accomplishment, on her vision, and on her policies. When she tells deeply personal stories, they tend to be those of people she’s met along the way, on whose behalf she’s fighting. On Tuesday, Bill did what Hillary has so rarely managed to do—offer up a compelling personal narrative, documenting her decades-long drive to help the vulnerable, implement reforms, and make a difference. Never satisfied with how things are, always striving to make them better.

Bill’s exhaustive recitation, which included Hillary lining the drawers of Chelsea’s dorm room, somehow omitted the wounds and indignities he’d inflicted upon Hillary along the way (and some which she’d inflicted on herself)—the endless investigations, the allegations of his infidelity, the affair with Monica Lewinsky, the impeachment.

But those omissions spoke loudly. They hovered over the speech. Few who were watching could have been unaware of the troubled times in the Clintons’ marriage, the scandals they weathered, the attacks they endured. For some, they doubtless cancelled out all the explicit points Bill made. But he was speaking to the others—the Democrats still unreconciled to her victory, the swing voters unhappy with both choices—urging them to meet the woman that he knows, and to see her as he does.

“She will never quit on you,” he said. And after four decades, he took the opportunity to thank her for never quitting on him.