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Bill Clinton Auditions for the Role of First Guy

Of all the thankless tasks that a political spouse must endure, the ritual of the convention speech is perhaps the worst.

Every four years, in front of a crowd of thousands and an audience of millions, the candidate's spouse has to testify to their essential goodness, weaving the most personal anecdotes with broader campaign themes.

The fact that Bill Clinton was a practiced convention speaker with nine speeches under his belt already did not make his task easier Tuesday. If anything, it made it harder.

Those speeches were more straightforward affairs, endorsing the party's candidate, arguing for his own campaigns, serving as "Explainer-in-Chief" for the platform. To testify on his wife's behalf, Clinton had to unlearn some of those habits, and as the first man in his position on a major party platform, he had no role models.

His job was to humanize Hillary Clinton, to turn her from a cardboard cutout—"the most famous, least-known person in the country"—back into something relatable.

In 2008, Michelle Obama described Barack Obama as "the same man who drove me and our new baby daughter home from the hospital 10 years ago this summer, inching along at a snail's pace, peering anxiously at us in the rearview mirror, feeling the whole weight of her future in his hands."

In 2000, Laura Bush recalled that “Hop on Pop” was one of George W. Bush's favorite children's books, and told the Republican National Convention that "George would lie on the floor and the girls would literally hop on pop, turning story time into a contact sport."

Read More: Bill Clinton Has Spoken Over 35,000 Words at Democratic Conventions

But Bill Clinton had a trickier task. He could not paint the first female presidential nominee as an anxious new mom without risking reducing her political stature. And he could not make broad proclamations about building a better future without sounding like he was running himself.

Instead he had to perform the kind of rhetorical alchemy that only a gifted speaker could pull off: turning the story of her success into the story of their love.

The crowd was largely silent as Bill Clinton cast his spell, conjuring up the image of a bright young go-getter and the hapless fool who fell for her. Bill dwelled heavily on the couple's early courtship, painting a picture of a good-hearted, idealistic Hillary Clinton who swept him off his feet. She wore a flowered skirt and had big hair. He followed her to register for classes, even though he had already signed up. She took him home to Illinois to argue about the Bears and Cubs with her two brothers.

He also credited her—perhaps too much—for his own ambition, arguing that she had believed in him and pushed him into office. Through her work helping children and migrant workers, he said, "Hillary opened my eyes to a whole new world of public service by private citizens." Whatever he had accomplished, he seemed to imply, was largely thanks to her.

"Let’s get back to business," he said after he finished listing early examples of her do-goodery to return to his grandfatherly reminiscences. "Meanwhile, I was trying to get her to marry me." The first portion of the speech focused not on any jobs or campaigns, but on his three marriage proposals to Hillary. He managed to spin an image of Hillary Clinton as both a superhero and an ingenue.

Then he elided more than a decade, skipping over his own presidency so that he could drill into her stints in the Senate and the State Department. Every mention of his own political career was couched as part of a personal narrative of their life together. If somehow you didn't know that he'd been President in the 1990s, you might not have realized it from this speech.

Instead, Bill assumed the posture of an awestruck bystander who happened to be around while Hillary worked her magic. When they dropped Chelsea off at college, he recalls, "there I was in a trance staring out the window the window trying not to cry, and there was Hillary, on her hands and knees looking for one more drawer to put that liner paper in." Unlike Michelle Obama or Laura Bush, he softened his spouse by opening up about his own vulnerabilities, not hers.

Hillary and Bill Clinton have been married 40 years— much of it spent in the political spotlight. Here, Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton married at a small ceremony on Oct. 11, 1975 - present Courtesy William J. Clinton Presidential Library
Hillary and Bill Clinton have been married 40 years— much of it spent in the political spotlight. Here, Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton married at a small ceremony on Oct. 11, 1975 - present Courtesy William J. Clinton Presidential LibraryCourtesy William J. Clinton Presidential Library
Hillary and Bill Clinton have been married 40 years— much of it spent in the political spotlight. Here, Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton married at a small ceremony on Oct. 11, 1975 - present Courtesy William J. Clinton Presidential Library
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and wife Hillary Rodham hold their week-old baby Chelsea on March 5, 1980.
Former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Clinton celebrate his victory in the Democratic runoff in Little Rock, Ark. on June 8, 1982.
Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton hugs his wife Hillary Clinton after she introduced him to well wishers at a downtown Chicago hotel, March 10, 1992.
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Bill Clinton & Hillary Rodham Clinton
President Bill Clinton dances with First Lady Hillary Clinton on stage on Jan. 20, 1993 in Washington. Eleven inaugural balls were held on the same evening in honor of President Clinton's election.
Massachussets: U.S. President Bill Clinton (R) and
Bill Clinton
President Clinton And Family On Vacation On Martha's Vineyard
President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton drink Coca-Cola at Moscow's Coca-Cola refreshments plant on May 11, 1995.
President Bill Clinton puts an arm around his wife, Hillary Clinton, while watching Old Faithful erupt at Yellowstone National Park, Wyo., on Aug. 25, 1995. The first family visited several Yellowstone sites while on vacation.
President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton share a moment during an East Room ceremony at the White House on July 17, 1996.
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BILL CLINTON HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
File photo dated 04 January 1998 shows US Presiden
Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton
President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton embrace during the New York State Senate luncheon on July 29, 2000 in New York City.
US First Lady and Senatorial candidate fopr New Yo
Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton of Ne
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Clinton
Bill And Hillary Clinton Lower Times Square 2009 New Years Eve Ball
Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband former U.S. president Bill Clinton embrace during a primary night event on June 7, 2016 in Brooklyn, New York after Hillary Clinton surpassed the number of delegates needed to become the democratic nominee.
Hillary and Bill Clinton have been married 40 years— much of it spent in the political spotlight. Here, Hillary Rodham a
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Courtesy William J. Clinton Presidential Library
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"She’s the best darn change maker I ever met in my entire life," he said. "This woman has never been satisfied with the status quo in anything. This woman always wants to move the ball forward, that’s just who she is."

In a particularly artful slight of hand, Bill Clinton compared this portrait of Hillary to the nasty caricatures painted by her enemies. “One is real," he said, "the other is made up.” With one flick of a long, outstretched finger, Bill Clinton used the GOP's attacks against Hillary to lend credibility to his own account. "A real change maker represents a real threat," he said. "So the only option is to create a cartoon alternative, and run agains the cartoon."

Delegates loved the idea of Bill Clinton as First Guy. "It's never been done before, but based on how he did this, I think he's gonna fill it with grace and grit," said Judy Noel, a Hillary Clinton delegate from Florida. "He made her into such a warm, human and accomplished person."

Even Bernie Sanders delegates were impressed. "Bill's speech really shows a good side of Hillary Clinton," said Gina Robinson Ungar, a Bernie Sanders delegate from Indiana. "I hope our neighbors back home will pay attention."

There's an old line that everything Fred Astaire did, Ginger Rogers also did backwards and in high heels. Bill Clinton's speech Tuesday was the male analogue. He had to do everything Michelle Obama and Laura Bush did, only standing straight while wearing a tightly knotted tie.

It was not easy, but by all accounts he pulled it off.

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