CHARLOTTE, N.C.— Bill Clinton's interminable speech last night here at the Time Warner Cable Arena certainly had the room going (though there was a noticeable lag in energy from minutes 457 through 588). It was probably a little tougher to take for anyone who had in hand a printed copy—small type, two columns, two pages, front-and-back—provided to the press by eager young DNC assistants. Thumbing through at what I thought was the speech's crescendo, I quickly realized that he was less than a third of the way through, and started wondering whether or not our parking lot closed at midnight.
It's a cliche by now that Clinton's speeches run long, and he probably stretched it out a bit—apparently over the objections of the Obama team—for the same reason Boston always plays "More Than a Feeling." Length aside, the ludicrously detailed and math-heavy performance is being hailed as a masterstroke, another in a long series of public acts by Clinton that has established him as an éminence grise not just of the Democratic Party, but of the nation—a living avatar of the Good Old Days.
But those days were horrible. I mean all days are horrible, if you look hard enough. But while Clinton's current popularity and timeless rhetorical skills make him an excellent defender of Obama's record, the history of his second term undermines the point a bit. Bill Clinton also once represented a New Hope in politics—a moderate, populist Third Way as opposed to Obama's cosmopolitan liberalism—who quickly foundered on the shoals of a GOP counter-reformation. It's all lost in the hazy historical afterglow of an expertly tended economic bubble (which burst almost on cue 10 months before his term was up), but Clinton's second term was a nightmare.
School uniforms. V-Chips. Y2K preparation. The "Initiative on Race," whatever the hell that was. After being walloped by the Republicans in 1994, and again after being walloped by Matt Drudge and Michael Isikoff in January 1998, Clinton collapsed into a protective crouch and championed meaningless, small-bore, "small-government" throwaways that Newt Gingrich thought were OK. He was an utterly paralyzed president. His personal popularity (and economic prosperity) notwithstanding, Clinton huddled at the center of a relentless maelstrom of rancor and rage for his last two years in office and accomplished next to nothing. Then he handed things off to Al Gore and started greasing the palms of Central Asian tyrants for money.
That's after beating an unpopular Republican candidate who never captured the enthusiasm of his party's base. Kind of like Romney.
So while Clinton's speech had a slightly underminery, "this-kid-hasn't-done-as-well-as-me-but-it's-not-his-fault-because-times-is-hard" vibe to it, we should all hope past isn't prologue when it comes to Democratic presidents who get re-elected to a second term. By pure force of staying power and charisma, Clinton has managed to convince Americans that his years in office were halcyon days, with a slight distraction from that awful Lewinsky matter. They were not. The very first hard policy proposal Clinton pitched in his 1996 State of the Union speech was a V-Chip. One hopes Obama—who will continue to face the same sort of partisan onslaught—could do better.
[Image via Getty]