There have been millions of words, decades of video and reams of commentary devoted to their story. It’s been dissected, defended and decried at kitchen tables and on cable news, in tabloids and classrooms.
But on Tuesday night, as millions of voters watched and with the political stakes as high as they’ve ever been, Bill Clinton tried to make sense of it all and make the case for his wife, the newly minted Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“In the spring of 1971, I met a girl,” he began.
The former president’s tenth address to a Democratic convention was by far his most personal, a 42-minute tour through wedding proposals and Halloween parties, the deaths of parents and movie marathons.
Perhaps their worst moments — the Monica Lewinsky scandal, impeachment and legal battles that followed — were conspicuously omitted.
Instead, Bill Clinton cast himself as a passenger in his wife’s life, reshaping the story of much of their decades in politics.
The goal was to make Clinton, perhaps the most famous female politician in the world, yet a public figure her aides claim remains unknown, relatable to voters. He cast her as a liberal heroine of her own story, who fought for education reform, health care, civil rights, the disabled, 9/11 first responders and economically depressed rural areas.
“She’s the best darn change-maker I’ve ever met in my entire life,” he said. “This woman has never been satisfied with the status quo on anything. She always wants to move the ball forward. That is just who she is.”
He never once mentioned GOP nominee Donald Trump by name, dismissing Republican attacks on Clinton as “made up” and a “cartoon alternative.” Rather, Bill Clinton focused nearly exclusively on his wife’s achievements and how she’d influenced him.
“I have lived a long full blessed life. It really took off when I met and fell in love with that girl in the spring of 1971,” he said.
But it wasn’t only Clinton who broke a glass ceiling on Tuesday when she became the first female nominee of a major party. Should she win on Election Day, her husband will step into a singular role in American history: first gentleman.
The potential new title is perhaps the strangest twist in a political career known for its second acts. After health scares and political missteps, the Comeback Kid, as he was known in his first presidential race, could come back to Washington one last time.
In 2012, he acted as a powerful validator for President Barack Obama, electrifying the room as the party’s “explainer-in-chief.”
But, said Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, “This is different.”
“This is more personal,” said Podesta, who recalled riding to the convention hall with Bill Clinton as he touched up his 2004 convention address. “This is more about her.”
Bill Clinton felt pressure to perform for his wife and make up for his own missteps during her second presidential campaign.
Nearly 70, he’s also a bit frailer, a touch shakier, though aides and friends say his famous memory remains sharp. Some say his administration’s legacy has been repudiated by his own party, which shifted left during Obama’s time in office.
“God bless him, Bill even looks old now,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. “He’s not the once and future king, he’s the once and past king.”
But no one doubts that Bill Clinton still wants to be at the center of the action. While aides have said he will not get a Cabinet post or a seat in the Situation Room should his wife win, Clinton has made clear that her closest adviser will remain involved with her administration, saying he’d likely have a role in managing the nation’s economy.
They remain a “two for one” package, as Bill Clinton famously said during his first presidential race. But on Tuesday night, he hinted, just barely, that Clinton perhaps is finally getting her part of the deal.
“I married my best friend,” he said. “And I really hoped that she choosing me and rejecting my own advice to pursue her own career was a decision she’d never regret.”
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