It is not unusual for former presidents to speak at nominating conventions. They seem to fall into three general categories: some are in high demand, some are not wanted and others fall in between. But there’s never been a former president like Bill Clinton, whose speech on Tuesday night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention broke all sorts of precedents.
President Bill Clinton holds the record for most wanted. Since his years in office, Clinton has given more prime time convention speeches than any recent president. He spoke in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012, and now 2016. In the traditional “former president speech,” the president touts his record, the record of his party, and the ability of the nominee to do all the good things his party has done before and more. Clinton did that in his 2000 convention speech with an entrance that was dramatic and memorable in its simplicity. As a camera followed from backstage onto the convention podium a voice simply recounted the Clinton/Gore record, a set of impressive statistics meant to boost Clinton’s vice president into the presidency.
Also in high demand at party conventions was Ronald Reagan—blessed, like Clinton, with a gift for oratory. In 1988 Reagan gave an unforgettable primetime address on the opening night of George H.W. Bush’s convention. With the words “go out there and win one for the Gipper,” George H. W. Bush got Reagan’s “third term.” There is no doubt that had Reagan remained healthy he would, like Clinton, have been featured at every Republican convention since.
Other former presidents haven’t been nearly as welcome at post-party conventions as Clinton has been. The rule of thumb has seemed to be that if you got beat badly in a re-election bid, your party doesn’t really want you around very much. Contrast Clinton’s history to that of president Jimmy Carter, a one-term president who lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan in 1980. Carter attended the two conventions after his presidency—1984 and 1988—but did not speak in primetime. By 2004 Carter was back at the Democratic convention, due not to his record as president but to his record as one of the best ex-presidents ever.
Similarly, neither of the Bush presidents were very welcome at their party’s next convention. The first Bush was, like Jimmy Carter, a one-term president. The second Bush did not give a major address at the 2008 convention. His party had suffered a big defeat in the midterm elections two years earlier and the nation had turned against the war in Iraq.
And in another first, the two former Republican presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush publicly boycotted Donald Trump’s convention after a bitter primary in which Trump insulted, ridiculed, and ultimately beat Jeb Bush.
But what made Clinton’s speech tonight truly historic is that he combined the traditional former president speech with the traditional “spouse” speech in which the wife tells us what a wonderful, kind and caring husband and father the candidate is.
From his very first words—“In the spring of 1971, I met a girl…” it was clear that Clinton was about to weave the story of Hillary as girlfriend, wife and mother with the story of Hillary the activist, Hillary the politician, and Hillary the change agent. But what will be remembered is Hillary the wife and mother. He told us how she looked and what she was wearing when he met her. He told us how he spent several years trying to get her to marry him and how “the third time was the charm.” He told the audience how she moved to “a strange place more rural, more culturally conservative, than any place she’d ever been.” How devoted she was to Chelsea her only child. “For the next 17 years Hillary was, first and foremost, a worrier.”
Bill Clinton’s speech was filled with the detail of ordinary, middle class American lives—soccer, volleyball, family vacations, ballet lessons. How, when they moved their daughter into college, Hillary worked hard to put lining paper in every last drawer in Chelsea’s dorm room until Chelsea had to gently tell her doting parents to leave.
Woven between the story of their marriage and family Clinton defended Hillary against the Republican’s accusations and touted her work as a Senator and as Secretary of State. Any former president speech would do that for their party’s nominee. In fact, we can expect President Obama to do just that on Wednesday night. But Clinton’s speech was also a spouse’s speech that will be remembered as humanizing, and the emotional core of the evening.
Elaine C. Kamarck is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates. She is a superdelegate to the Democratic convention.