I highly recommend watching the Bill Clinton Democratic Convention speech (video with transcript here) – it is one of the most impressively American speeches I have ever seen – thoroughly and completely in the American tradition of political oratory, folky, homespun, pragmatism and idealism seamlessly blended, wandering, an afternoon’s entertainment in a sleepy little town, funny, emotional, autobiographical, and heartfelt. I think it’s the best speech Clinton has ever given. He has matured into his role as an inveterate politician. Some people want to call him a statesman, but he is not that – even in his age, there is nothing of Bismarck or Talleyrand in him – he is just an old-fashioned American stumpwormer, proof of the American maxim that all politics is local, and the fact that he is unusually intelligent and now very, very experienced now heightens rather than obfuscates the effect. He is in the tradition of Earl Long and others.
I saw Clinton speak once in a town square in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he was campaigning for the local congressman. This was 2008 – I was sleeping on some stranger’s floor campaigning for Obama at the time – and Clinton had no need to be speaking to a hundred or so people in a rusty old PA town on a drizzly October evening. But he was there, patently for the love of it. He spoke for forty minutes without a note, going through a massive list of something like “fourteen reasons why you must send so-and-so back to Congress.” He had the command of seemingly infinite details, when local bridges were built and where the materials came from, how much money was appropriated for what local projects and supported by whom and why. He never paused except for masterful effect. But looking at the crowd listening to the man on the platform on a fall evening – it was one of those moments in my life where it seemed the place was the real thing, and we humans were all merely dressing – that the Politician had spoken to the Crowd there before, and he and we were just the latest manifestations of these powers that lived in the land itself, and became visible in certain seasons, like the changing of the leaves of fall.