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Category: Politics

A Nearly Perfect Speech—Hillary Clinton at the DNC

| August 27, 2008

Hillary Clinton approached the podium tonight at the Democratic National Convention with a tall order to fill: to deliver a speech of historical significance that would fulfill the immediate needs of pragmatic politics.  Tall or not, the order was filled.  On the 88th anniversary of the 19th amendment—the one that grants women the right to vote—Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman to come within striking distance of a major-party presidential nomination, delivered a speech steeped in feminist history that implored her supporters to embrace the candidacy of Barack Obama.

She was introduced by way of a video tribute to her, narrated by her daughter, Chelsea.  The piece emphasized the historic nature of Clinton's candidacy, and her own native feminism.  We learned that, as a girl, Hillary Clinton wrote to NASA, asking how she could become an astronaut. A NASA official wrote back, Clinton said, stating that women were not permitted in their ranks.  Friends featured in the video expressed an appreciation of her hearty laugh, which was notoriously characterized as a "cackle" by mainstream male journalists.  The best joke in the piece was the text placed under a video clip of former President Bill Clinton talking about Hillary: it simply read "Hillary's husband"—no mention of his name.

Taking the podium, Clinton cut right to the chase, introducing herself as "a proud supporter of Barack Obama."  She essentially told her supporters that if they valued the 35 years she spent "in the trenches" advocating for children's and women's rights, and universal health care, they wouldn't let the White House remain in Republican hands for another four years.  "No way, no how, no McCain," she said.

She then launched into stories of people she met along the campaign trail—stories familiar to those who followed her campaign—the mother suffering from cancer who wrote Hillary's name on "her bald head" in honor of the candidate's promise of health care, the ailing veteran asking her to take care of his buddies still deployed in Iraq, a child whose mother earned the minimum wage and couldn't make ends meet.  At this point, I'm thinking, this sounds like a Hillary Clinton campaign speech.  Where's she going with this? 

Her text wandered off for a short while, honoring the family members of the recently deceased Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), a stalwart Hillary supporter, and Arkansas Democratic Chair Bill Gwatney.  Then she brought it back around in a most elegant way:

I want you—I want you to ask yourselves: Were you in this campaign just for me, or were you in it for that young Marine and others like him? 

Were you in it for that mom struggling with cancer while raising her kids?

Were you in it for that young boy and his mom surviving on the minimum wage? 

Were you in it for all the people in this country who feel invisible?

And that is really the point. As difficult as has been this race for the Democratic presidential nomination, it is not a contest for some sort of award, not a point to be proven in and of itself.  The stakes in this election are towering: at greater risk than ever before is a woman's right to reproductive freedom, the future of the global environment and the people's right to a peaceful existence.

In her address to the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton essentially told us that we need to look beyond that great American tradition of identifying as individuals so closely with a particular candidate that we stand in danger of putting personalities before principles.  In her address and a video script drawn largely from her own concession speech, Clinton asked us to consider the next generation, laying aside resentment of the outcome.

Her speech was smartly crafted and beautifully delivered.  One of the most inspiring things I've witnessed over the course of this campaign was not simply Hillary Clinton's made-for-prime-time candidacy—a first in the annals of American history—but her evolution into an extraordinarily powerful speaker.

Yet as effective as it seems to have been (the proof will come on election day), the speech subtly conveyed the complex dynamics of the 2008 presidential race.  Clinton lauded Michelle Obama, saying that the younger woman had proven with her Monday-night speech that "she will make a great first lady for America."  She applauded the selection of Joe Biden as Barack Obama's running mate, calling Biden "wise," "pragmatic" and "a good man."  Even John McCain, while having his policies repudiated, was named by Clinton as "my friend."  The only person left off the list of personal positives was Barack Obama. 

Clinton spoke of Obama's understanding of the need for fundamental changes in energy and health care policies, and noted his early career as a community organizer "fighting for workers displaced by the global economy." But she failed to name a single personal attribute of his worthy of appreciation. 

Following the theme of generational struggle and continuity that opened and closed the video piece, Clinton wrapped up her speech with a moving observation of how far we as women have traveled in the course of less than a century.  "My mother was born before women could vote," Clinton said.   "My daughter got to vote for her mother for president. This is the story of America, of women and men who defy the odds and never give up." 

She went on to recount the advice that Harriet Tubman, the great African-American anti-slavery activist, gave to the men and women seeking to escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad.   "’If you hear the dogs, keep going,'" Clinton said, quoting Tubman. "'If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there's shouting after you, keep going. Don't ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.’" 

She implored all who listened to consider the fate of their children and grandchildren on election day.  "That is our duty," she said, "to build that bright future, to teach our children that, in America, there is no chasm too deep, no barrier too great, no ceiling too high for all who work hard, who keep going, have faith in God, in our country, and each other."

It was beautiful, elegant and breathtaking, given the great achievement of Hillary Clinton in this contest, and her iconic stature in the eyes of so many women who see in her the vision of a more perfect union—one in which women are equal partners in leading the nation.  If only she had mentioned, as she has before, the historic accomplishment of Barack Obama, the first African-American to win the presidential nomination of a major party, her speech would have been nearly perfect.