Bill Clinton, and bringing substance to the masses

So the word is out that Bill Clinton rocks at giving a speech (full video). For older readers, this is not anything new. However, I am glad that a generation of people younger than me, with no memory of Clinton (I was 10 1/2 when he left office), got to see him in this context. Sometimes you try to tell your kids or younger friends about an actor or an athlete and their greatness during your formative years- but they’re washed up or alcoholic so the same experience can’t be replicated. But with this speech, you can truly say “this, my friends, is why I like Bill Clinton.”

I should preface this all with the statement that I am not a Democrat, nor am I likely to vote for the President come November. However, I can, like many Republicans and independents, appreciate good speechcraft and a rare moment of substantiative discourse in this vapid, shallow election season.

In a rare commonality with Clinton, I usually do quite a bit of improvisation when I speak in front of a group. Sometimes I don’t have anything prepared and you go by what moves you and what sounds good in the moment. An issue with going of script (which given the allocated time for his speech, featured twenty minutes off the cuff) is that you can end up in the weeds. Speeches are like Hansel and Gretel. If you go off into the woods, you may not ever make it back home. Sometimes you’re forced to, and there is a glaring roughness to the transition. Clinton stumbled a couple times during his ad libs, but he never lost the thread. As the most credible supporter of President Obama at this convention, he has to look composed and forceful, and deliver emotion to the President’s policies in the first term, and proposals for the second. He did that.

What annoys me with major party conventions, and why I’ve avoided them this cycle, is that 95% of the many, many speeches given over the four days are cheap, partisan attacks on the other candidate. They often use cliché and soundbites that fall flat, and have nothing for independents to latch onto. I’m proposing a new measurement of political speeches: the statistic-to-strawman ratio. Most convention speeches have very few policy details, and prefer wide platitudes and disingenuous comments about the other party.

Clinton brought something to the table. What I thought of afterwards is that the former president was like the public policy version of Bill Nye the Science Guy. He went through a staggering array of topics- Medicare and Medicaid, welfare, the ACA, the auto bailout, skills training and education. Yet his folksy manner kept light what would have been very academic and sometimes grim material.

However, it wasn’t dumbed-down, it was simplified. It was compression without information loss. One user on a website I frequent called it “content-dense.”

This was something that had very little red meat for the party and the party alone. This was selling to independents- and given his Third Way reputation it’s not surprising. So in a rare event, a convention speech actually was aimed at winning new voters- not firing up existing ones.

In my perfect world, politics would be as content-dense. Instead, as a friend of mine who’s studying for a political science Ph.D said, it’s essentially a circus for the public. Political science, where you look at the ramifications of policy, is something that rarely crosses paths with politics. In this speech, they met.

And it was damn impressive.

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

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