What Made Hillary Clinton's Acceptance Speech Work

Jul 29, 2016

The smartest thing about Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech Thursday night at the Democratic Convention was that she didn't try to compete with the oratorical athletes who spoke before her during one of the most stirring weeks of speech-making I've ever witnessed. She couldn't summon the passion of Michelle Obama and Joe Biden, so she didn't try. She couldn't summon the casual conversational brilliance of her husband or Barack Obama, either. She played within herself, solid, but showing flashes of her wicked humor at times. She resorted to American cliches—E Pluribus Unum—rather attempting to create a larger vision of the country in her own words, but American cliches are always thrilling to me at least. I've spent a lifetime watching Republicans intoning, "That we are endowed, by our creator, with certain unalienable rights…" and "We the people…" It was nice to see Clinton, and Barack Obama before her, to celebrate the power of those ideas.

The problem is, when Hillary Clinton gives a speech, you are conscious every moment that she is giving a speech. This one was one of her best because it was true to who she is: what you saw last night is what you're going to get if she's elected President. She offers two things: an agenda—as opposed to a message—and a demeanor. I'm more impressed with the latter than with the former.

It was fascinating that, time and again during the course of the week, the most intimate details offered by friends involved her profound Methodism, her ceaseless work on behalf of others. The examples were non-stop admirable—to a point. And, for me at least, that point has a very distinct limit: it ends when the actions of inspired individuals like Hillary Clinton are institutionalized, and bureaucratized, by the government.

Let me give you one wonky example: She talks about the need for universal pre-kindergarten education. We "know" it works. And it does: in study after carefully controlled study, conducted by devoted professionals, early education is a pretty good antidote to the deficiencies of broken homes. But somehow Head Start—the official government program—doesn't work at all, according to the government's own comprehensive study. Honest liberals know this and they know why. "It's a jobs program," a top Obama aide told me, then talked about the Administration's very limited attempt to create some market discipline, a "race to the top" to make it a credible educational, rather than employment, program. This is true across the government—from the VA to HHS. It's much worse at the local level: Government is, too often, run for the benefit of its employees rather than for its citizens. Clinton's main early education proposal is to double the funding for it. That's just not good enough.

On the other hand, there's her demeanor—her strength, her attention span, her ability to grow and learn. I saw the latter up close in the years after 9/11, when she joined the Armed Service Committee and learned the military. She studied hard and won the admiration of not only Republicans on the committee, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, but also of the military leadership. I've told this story before but it bears repeating: I once asked General David Petraeus whether there was any Democrat who had the slightest notion of how his mind works and he said, "You mean, aside from Hillary?"

I have no doubt that the leaders of our current military, who are far more realistic than many of our politicians, would rather see her as President than her flighty, fidgety opponent Donald Trump. I have no doubt that she will face every new crisis with calm, consistency and intelligence. That doesn't mean she won't sometimes be wrong. She was wrong about the Iraq war (but that, I suspect—sadly—was more of a political vote than a reasoned one). This may be an apocryphal story, but former Secretary of State Warren Christopher was once asked about the most important quality in dealing with the interminable, unmovable Hafez Assad of Syria and he said, "The ability to hold your bladder." Clinton has that—metaphorically, of course.

And, I suppose, in the end, when you're talking about what matters most in a president, I've come to believe that it's the ability to hold your bladder—to listen carefully, to keep calm, not to rush to judgment or shoot your mouth off. In a world that has come to be defined and will continued to be defined by random acts of terror and mental illness, a steady hand is a crucial quality.

So we're not going to get flashy speeches from Hillary Clinton. And we're not going to get grand, transformative plans. We're probably not going to see our corroded, industrial age welfare state revised for the Information Age. We saw what we're going to get last night—and considering the unthinkable alternative, that should suffice.

One last point: I was reminded of how loathsome I've come to consider the political left by their jeering of two fine public servants, Leon Panetta and General John Allen. The views of those hecklers are as dangerous and despicable as those of Donald Trump. Happily, and unlike the Republican party, the Democrats have rejected their extremists.

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