Politics

Bill Clinton’s poetic tribute to his wife, Hillary: ‘In the spring of 1971, I met a girl’

Former President Bill Clinton speaks at the Democratic National Convention. More coverage at latimes.com/trailguide

He is his wife’s best advocate, most ardent defender and biggest fan.

On Tuesday night, former President Bill Clinton’s job was to convince the American people that if they only knew his wife the way he does, they would not hesitate to put her back in the White House, this time as commander in chief.

He was charming and loving, wonky and passionate as he spoke of Hillary Clinton as a social-justice-minded law student, as a young wife, mother and public servant. Did he electrify his audience, as he did in 2012, when he gave a moving speech about Barack Obama’s first term?

Not exactly. In fact, in some ways, the middle part of his remarks teetered close enough to a policy slog that it brought to mind his convention appearance in 1988, when he delivered a talk so leaden that his national political aspirations seemed imperiled. (They were not.)

He did get off to a promising, and poetic, start: “In the spring of 1971, I met a girl.”

Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton pose with week-old baby Chelsea on March 5, 1980.
Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton pose with week-old baby Chelsea on March 5, 1980.
(Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham with week-old baby Chelsea )

It was a lovely way to begin a tribute to the woman who has been with him “in good times and bad times, through joy and heartbreak.” 

People think they know everything there is to know about Hillary Clinton, but as her husband recited her early resume in almost granular detail, it became clear that her passion for children and the underprivileged has animated her life.

Her dedication to these issues, he said, began when her youth pastor took her to see Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago, then blossomed when she went to work for Marian Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund, and has never wavered. 

In a pointed allusion to Republican nominee Donald Trump, who mocked a disabled reporter in a speech last year, he said that a young Hillary worked on a project that culminated with federal legislation giving disabled children equal access to public education.

“She never made fun of people with disabilities,” he said. “She tried to empower them based on their abilities.”

The noise around Hillary — her private email server, the controversy over the attack in Benghazi, Libya — has often obscured her accomplishments. A favorite Republican talking point is that she accomplished nothing in her tenure as secretary of State. Not if you ask her husband.

“As secretary of State, she worked hard to get strong sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program.…

“She flew all night long from Cambodia to the Middle East to get a cease-fire that would avoid a full-out shooting war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza to protect the peace of the region. She backed President Obama’s decision to go after Osama bin Laden.”

One of Hillary Clinton’s greatest challenges is to get voters to see her as more real, more human and, yes, more likeable. That is where a husband comes in handy.

Who else but a spouse could tell a sentimental story about dropping their only child, Chelsea, off at Stanford University and having to pry Hillary away.

“I’ll never forget moving her into her dorm room at Stanford,” he said. “It would have been a great little reality flick. There I was in a trance just staring out the window trying not to cry, and there was Hillary on her hands and knees desperately looking for one more drawer to put that liner paper in.”

He repeatedly called his wife “the real one,” making a pointed comparison to the “cartoon alternative” that Republicans have created of her.

“Good for you,” he told delegates in Philadelphia, “because earlier today, you nominated the real one.”

By the end of his speech, the old Bill Clinton, the gifted orator and veteran of 10 conventions, had returned. He made a soaring appeal to groups alienated by the GOP’s tough rhetoric — immigrants, Muslims and African Americans who are “disillusioned and afraid.” 

Hillary will make us stronger together,” said the former president-turned-political spouse. “You know it because she’s spent a lifetime doing it.” 

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UPDATES:

11:05 p.m.: Updated throughout.

This article was first published at 9:25 p.m.