DNC 2016: We've lived the Clinton soap opera for 26 years. In Philadelphia Hillary asked America to order a new season

And all of a sudden Ms Clinton, in detergent white, stepped on to the stage. She had made it. After all those years.

David Usborne
Friday 29 July 2016 02:04 BST
A long time ago in an America far, far away: the Clintons and the Gores prepare to board their 1992 campaign bus
A long time ago in an America far, far away: the Clintons and the Gores prepare to board their 1992 campaign bus

America is a country grumbling and the candidate for president knew instinctively how to empathise while also delivering a message of hope and optimism. “I must tell you of the pain I feel in my heart when I come to a town like this and I see the energy and the light in your eyes and know that you have not been given the chance to live up to your potential”.

This was Bill Clinton on a boiling July day in 1992 in Centralia, southern Illinois, midway on a bus tour of the Midwest with his running mate, Al Gore, that had started straight out of that year’s Democratic convention in New York. A reporter travelling with them who had been moved by the throngs – a family with a baby in a nappy standing in a field for hours just for the privilege of seeing their bus flying by – would ring his London editors the next day to offer a prediction: Bill is going to win this thing.

Part of the magic of those days on the road were the supporting roles played by the candidates’ spouses along for the ride. Al and Tipper Gore were the couple who had set the convention on fire the week before by engaging in a long smooch on the stage, with the whole nation watching. Who would have thought that of the two couples, they would be the ones divorced by now and not the Clintons? Especially remembering what the Clintons were to go through a few short years later. What the whole country was to go through, really.

As it turned out, Bill Clinton was elected president and throughout the campaign he had never shied from offering the notion that with Hillary, the country would be getting “two for the price of one”. Not everyone liked it, but it was certainly honest. Since they had been married, Hillary had been the main bread-earner in the house, including (especially) when Bill was Governor of Arkansas. As a lawyer and activist, she had displayed a deep interest in public policy-making.

‘Who would have thought, in 1992, that it would be the Gores who would be divorced by now and not the Clintons?’

When Ms Clinton took her quest to pass universal health care to Capitol Hill in the first half of her husband’s first term, the legendary (and later imprisoned for fraud) Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski, was so impressed, he famously gushed, “'In future, the President will be known as your husband”. No longer with us, he couldn’t have known that maybe - maybe - by next January Bill will indeed only be the husband, albeit the first one, and she will be President.

The health initiative failed, a humiliating set-back for the then first lady. If she retreated some thereafter, it was in part thanks to the serial scandals and attendant investigations that swamped her and her husband in the following years, most particularly the investigation by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr into a murky past property purchase deal in a place called Whitewater in Arkansas. The original charges were later to morph into allegations that the president had lied under oath about an affair he had indeed pursued with an intern named Monica Lewinsky.

One telling fact: on the same day in 1998 that the Senate was voting on whether to approve an impeachment resolution already passed by the House of Representatives – it didn’t – Ms Clinton was huddled with aides in the White House seeking guidance on whether she could conceivably run for the US Senate in New York, a state she had never lived in. She found a way, as we now know, winning election in 2000.

Her moment arrives: Hillary greets delegates in Philadelphia

It’s a curious thing that when you examine Ms Clinton’s negative favorability ratings today in her own party – and they are historically abysmal – it’s younger Democrats who are most resistant to her appeal. A recent Wall Street Journal poll said a third of all Democrats who feel negatively about her are under 30, even though they made up only 18 per cent of the voters surveyed.

There are explanations, not least the liberal instincts on issues like trade and college fees that drew the young to Senator Bernie Sanders, whose defeat has left them disappointed and bitter. But as someone said on Twitter this week, if you go into a bar and find they don’t have the beer of your choice you don’t drink bleach (ie, vote Trump).

It’s curious because this is the generation that was spared the shared national drama that was Whitewater/Lewinsky. They had only the good years of Senator and Secretary of State Clinton. They will have barely noticed that in his speech on Tuesday, Mr Clinton brazenly glossed over all the difficult, awkward stuff – the blue dress, the “I did not have sexual relations” claim. Some of us who did live through those years of national angst felt almost affronted. That was a lot to deal with. Couldn't he at least have acknowledged as much?

From the moment the conversation started about Hillary running to be president – when was that even? – some older Democrats have felt a sort of weight. When will this Clinton soap opera ever end? Yet it is those same Democrats who are giving Ms Clinton the deepest bench of support now in 2016.

Chelsea Clinton was 13 years old at the time of that first Clinton-Gore tour (and stayed at home in Arkansas). An only child, she was destined to be drafted later in life as surrogate for her mother in each of her political campaigns. It was in Philadelphia in the spring of 2008 that she, accompanied by then Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and one single foreign reporter, visited every gay and lesbian bar and club in the city on a single night to help harvest votes for Hillary, who that year was battling Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination.

On Thursday night, it fell to Chelsea to offer a softer portrait of her mother than most of America has heard before. When her mother was away from home for work, presumably those months out with Bill in places like Centralia, "she left notes for me to open every day she was gone, with a date on the front of each one so I would know which note to open on which day". Now a mother of two toddlers herself, she again played her part well. "That feeling of being loved and treasured," she said, "that is the feeling that my mother wants for every child."

And then Ms Clinton, in detergent white, stepped on to the stage. She had made it. After all those years. Surely worth a gulp. "This is the first time a major political party has nominated a woman for president," she reminded delirious delegates. "It clears the way for everyone. When there are no ceilings, the sky is the limit." History's cogs turning before us. "I accept your nomination..."

She is familiar to us, but still she is not. That had been the job of the convention to try to fill in those gaps in what we know about her and erase some of the less flattering caricatures. Chelsea did her part and so did so many other speakers who came before her at the convention, including Mr Obama and his wife, Michelle. And Hillary did her part too.

"Bill, that conversation we started in the law conversion 45 years ago is still going strong," Ms Clinton declared, reminding delegates of a story they had already heard, of the first meeting between her and her husband at the Yale Law School in 1971. "I have even got a few words in along the way," she added charmingly. He the showhorse, she the workhorse. It's a line her campaign offers a lot.

Whole books have been written about the mysteries of their marriage. People who know the Clintons well describe it this way: very soon after that first meeting they reached a shared conclusion, that together they would be able to bring about more change and climb to higher positions of public office than apart. If a bond of commitment to serve and a bond to realise political ambition can also be a bond of enduring love, that is what the Clintons have. And it has got them and all of us all the way to here.

If her campaign was afraid that her speech, after all those that came before, notably from the President on Wednesday, would seem pallid, they need not have worried. She was gracious to Mr Sanders; she touched on issues that appeal to the Democratic base, like guns and education, with sly precision; she was occasionally funny and self-deprecating; and, above all, she formulated the central element of her message of her campaign with easy success: that while the other candidate says he can fix America all on his own, she sees progress being forged only by everyone who is willing to unite in their efforts. The theme was spelled by coloured cards held up by delegates in the terraces of the arena: "Working together".

The 1992 bus tour was remembered as being more effective than the Clinton-Gore convention in winning over American voters. On Friday afternoon, Ms Clinton and her running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, were due to reprise that moment, leaving on their bus from Philadelphia for the Midwest. Again the spouses were due to be on board too, at least for part of the time.

If the 2016 bus tour is not so triumphant, it will be because the Philadelphia convention, Ms Clinton's speech included, was.

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