I just watched a master at his craft. It was like watching Michael Jordan in his prime. Bill Clinton showed the world—and Barack Obama—how it's done, and he made it look easy. Better than anyone else at this convention so far—and better than the nominee himself on the campaign trail to date—the former president made the case for the senator from Illinois and for the Democrats to take back the White House from the Republicans.
I sat five seats away from Clinton Tuesday night as he watched his wife speak in the Pepsi Center. Afterwards, I had a chance to chat with him. He said he'd read his wife's speech " a hundred times." As for his own, he said, "We'll have a good time with it tomorrow."
He was right. He enjoyed the hell out of himself. In a speech that he wrote—and rewrote—up to the last minute (what else is new?), he praised Obama directly and personally far more than his wife did (she didn't, in fact); he described elements of Obama's character in ways that made them seem just what the country needed; he described in clear detail what he saw as the devastating consequences of Republican policies; and he described with a sweeping sense of history much of public life in the last quarter century.
Clinton looked every inch a president—and not quite a "former" one at that. He told me Tuesday night that he had worked hard to lose the campaign-trail ten (or twenty) he had gained crisscrossing the country for his wife. He looked tanned, rested and ready to do it all
He did not lay it on too thick. His praise of Obama's inclusive character and toughness had just a hint of jealously and rue about it—just enough to make it credible. Clinton's description of Obama's historical role was apt without being histrionic. His tone and touch were perfect—even as his wry, tongue-in-cheek smile seemed to tell, the world: boy, I'm good at this!
This convention needs above all to explain to middle-class white voters in swing states why their economic best interests lie with the Democratic Party and Obama—and why those voters cannot afford four more years of "extreme" GOP policies. Clinton laid out the problem and the case clearly. He did the same when discussing foreign policy, arguing that we do better as a nation when the world sees the "power of our example" rather than the "example of our power."
As I watched from the NBC balcony, I saw below in a sea of flags a white-haired lion not quite in winter, and not angry at his fate. I covered his first convention speech in Atlanta in 1988. I was bird-dogging him and was up close and saw what happened. He was young and hungry and afraid, and the speech was disastrously long because he had asked every friend to contribute a paragraph—and then read them all. He was also, back then, distracted, shall we say.
What I saw tonight was a testament to the fact that we all can grow up. Bill Clinton finally, impressively, has.