CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When he addressed the Democratic National Convention in 1988, then-Gov. Bill Clinton was almost booed off the stage after delivering a meandering 35-minute speech that only drew applause when he finally said, “And, in conclusion…”
On Sept. 5 in Charlotte, the former president received an extended standing ovation from Democrats who packed Time Warner Cable Arena on the penultimate night of this year’s convention.
As his own signature campaign song, Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” filled the arena and thousands of delegates clapped in unison, the 42nd president strolled onto the stage, determined to make the case for President Barack Obama’s reelection.
“If you want a winner-take-all, ‘you’re-on-your-own’ society, you should support the Republican ticket,” Clinton said. “If you want a country of shared prosperity and shared responsibility—a ‘we're-all-in-this-together’ society—you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden."
Although Clinton spoke approximately 5,200 words—2,300 more than were included in his prepared text—and his speech lasted some 48 minutes, many in the audience seemed like they would have listened to 48 more.
“Like a lawyer slowly moving the jury to a judgement,” as The Daily Beast columnist Andrew Sullivan described him, Clinton confronted the opposition’s arguments head-on, criticizing Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan with equal parts folksiness and wonk-speak.
“It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did,” Clinton said of Ryan, who has said that Obama’s health care law is “the biggest, coldest power play of all,” one that victimizes older Americans by cutting $716 billion from Medicare.
“That $716 billion is exactly to the dollar the same amount of Medicare savings that he had in his own budget,’’ Clinton said.
After concluding his remarks to thunderous applause, he was joined onstage by Obama himself, an appearance that was only a surprise to those who had ignored social media for the previous hour. In another stark difference from years past, two presidents—who were so bitter at each other after the 2008 election that they did not speak for three months—embraced each other, smiled and briefly waved to the audience before walking offstage.
While the reaction to Clinton’s remarks peaked at a remarkable 22,087 tweets per minute, according to Twitter, that number was less than the 28,003 generated by the barn-burner of a speech that first lady Michelle Obama gave at the same podium Sept. 4.
Still, the almost universal consensus on Clinton’s appearance was that, love him or hate him, he is perhaps the most gifted political orator of his generation.
“I’ve always said that if I were on trial, and if I were guilty, I would want Bill Clinton there to defend me,” said Brit Hume, Fox News’ senior political analyst.
As praise for Clinton gave way to anticipation for Obama’s Sept. 6 speech, the emotions of Democrats in Charlotte seemed to be a mix of enthusiasm about the president’s appearance and disappointment that it would not occur at the 72,000-seat Bank of America Stadium, as planned.
Severe-weather forecasts prompted convention organizers to move the finale from the stadium to Time Warner Cable Arena—a decision that the president himself addressed in a conference call with volunteers on Sept. 6.
Describing his staff as “crestfallen” over the decision to change venues, Obama told supporters, “You’re doing unbelievable work in this close race. We can't let a little thunder and lightning get us down. We have to roll with it.”
“I can’t wait to share my vision for the future tonight, so I hope you’ll tune in,” he added.