Clinton '92 DNC Nomination Acceptance Speech Reaction

I love the way Clinton begins with an appropriate self-deprecating joke about his disastrous 1988 DNC speech. It’s one quick line that alleviates any tension in the room and then moves things on to “looking towards the future.” Like McGovern, Clinton goes into his primary opponents in an attempt to heal any lingering bad faith. He goes for the route I’ve always recommended—give a little intro and then accept the nomination as opposed to doing so at the end or in the very first words of the speech. This allows the anticipation to build a little bit before saying those magic words everyone’s expecting to hear without dragging the moment out until it’s forgotten.

A lot of what Bill says about winning the battle abroad but putting off the problems at home is still sadly relevant today. It’s kind of hard to watch these old speeches because of this fact–we never learn. The same issues constantly come up because we never solve anything of real substance.

The line about “raising unemployment by just one more person” before a recovery can begin (in reference to putting Bush himself out of work by beating him) was pretty good if maybe it could have been rephrased better.

While I usually find the candidates’ personal background stories somewhat forced and corny, I think Bill introduces the subject very well in this particular speech. He shares an anecdote about people not trusting politicians and then honestly and completely sums up his own background to (in theory) earn that trust from us going forward. It’s kind of like Obama and John Edwards in 2004—these kinds of tangents can be really effective if they’re set up and delivered well. That said, the line “thank you mother, I love you” felt a little too cheesy. And I think trying to pin the genesis of each of his values (“it all started with…”) was a bit forced.

I agree with Bill that I’m sick of being preached to by the right-wing about “family values” and his line “our family has values, the government doesn’t” was really effective as a result. The follow up line “governments don’t raise kids, parents do” I think is a good refutation to censorship and using government to police morality. But ironically, a lot of this sentiment applies exactly to Hillary’s “the children are watching!!” excuse for authoritarian ideals in 2016, and trying to censor videogames as a Senator.

While I usually find Washington/Lincoln quotes lazy, in this case I give credit because the quote was a bit more niche, it was relevant to the subject, and Clinton then rephrased the quote (directed now at Bush, not McClellan) and made it his own. That’s effective rhetoric, not just lazy virtue signalling by name dropping a beloved figure.

Bill Clinton’s speech has a chorus as well, “we can do better.”/”but I will” Not particularly inspired, but a hell of a lot better than what Mondale and Dukakis came up with the previous two cycles. However, what’s bothering me about Bill Clinton is that so much of this speech is piling on negatives of Bush, and claiming to do everything Bush has failed to accomplish. I see this as somewhat reminiscent of the Mondale/Dukakis years, where the nominees were practically fawning over Reagan rather than attacking him. While Clinton is at least attacking his opponent again, it’s worth noting that the Republicans are still dominating the conversation. Compare this with McGovern or the 60s Democrats where, despite a few token attack lines thrown Nixon’s way, they were boldly laying down their own policy independent of anything Nixon said or did. LBJ did not even mention Goldwater by name at all for Gods sake.

I love how Clinton turns the Republican lines about “big government” against them by pointing out that a) they’ve been running the government for the last 12 years and b) they just love having that to campaign on. His line about “a leaner, not meaner” government was a really effective way to re-frame the issue in my opinion. As a fan of his ideals as well as his insurgent campaign, I also loved the shout-out to Ross Perot. It seems like Clinton really wanted to cozy up to Ross’ supporters while Bush showed a lot more open resentment towards him. (It’s a reversal of how Reagan embraced John Anderson’s independent candidacy in 1980 while Carter belittled him.)

Clinton’s tangent about the importance of having a vision when you begin to run something was great, as was tying Bush to this same lack of vision. However, I think the climactic line from this segment “where there is no vision, the people perish” was a bit weak and could have been rewritten. I think this segment as a whole was fantastic, but that big applause line needed to be snappier. And on that note, the talk of American companies acting like AMERICAN companies again “exporting products not jobs” comes up short in hindsight with how Bill personally signed NAFTA. Same with his talk of college and how “you gotta pay it back.” I’m sure all of us millennials buried in impossible debt appreciate that idea.

Finally, I’m not a big fan of the phrase “New American Covenant” either. It may just be me, but the word “covenant” evokes religious and cult imagery. It feels like Clinton wanted his own slogan in the vein of the earlier “Square Deal”/“New Deal”/”New Frontier”/”Great Society” name for his platform but couldn’t think of anything better. If it were up to me, he should have said “New Society” as a reference to both the “Great Society” and “New Deal” or even better, “a New (American) Vision” to tie it into the earlier segment about vision.

What’s really strange looking back on all these speeches is that McGovern is always made out to be the hopeless idealist, pie in the sky liberal. Yet his own platform (at least as outlined in his speech) sounded very focused and reasonable. Here, Bill Clinton seems to be promising everything he can possibly think of with no outlined plan on how to accomplish it, pay for it or in what priority it all should come in. Yet, he’s always made out to be a realist and the more responsible of the two. I’d say it’s more like Clinton promised a lot and then waffled on most of it in a vain attempt to “modernize” the Democratic Party. (Read: capitulate on its principles and surrender to the right-wing.)

Special piece of trivia for you, this is also the first time “the gays” were mentioned in a DNC speech, at least by a nominee.

The quoting of the Pledge of Allegiance was really corny, but that said, he clearly brought it up to emphasize that there’s only one America, indivisible in contrast to the Republicans trying to divide or demonize. So, with that in mind it worked alright. He could have maybe introduced it better such as: “as our pledge of allegiance says” or “even school children know” or something to that effect.

At the end Bill leads them in a chant of “we can do it” which was perhaps a predecessor to Obama’s “yes we can.”

While the anecdote about seeing Chelsea be born was maybe a bit cheesy, he at least uses it as a springboard to establish that there are Americans being born now and that we owe them a better country and better life. (If only the Boomers had taken this message to heart.) Anyway, Bill Clinton’s talk of a “bold new future” is certainly a lot different than Hillary’s sigh and shrug “ehh…things are good enough already right? #WomanPresident” that’s for damn sure.

Overall, it was maybe a bit lacking in specifics or the “blow you away” moment that McGovern ended on, but it was an effective speech. It’s hard for me to look at this objectively due to my distaste for the Clintons and annoyance that so much of these promises in particular never came to pass. But it was well delivered, a huge step up from the three previous nominees. It’s at least a lot closer to the spirit of what the Democratic Party used to stand for in its heyday as opposed to the last two speeches from a nominee. So that’s something.

1 Comment

  1. Another fine analysis of a speech I never listened to before. I hated Bush at the time for his stupid Iraq war but not enough for me to vote or Clinton. Didn’t trust either one of them. I think the candidate I liked at the time was Pat Buchannan who didn’t get the Republican nomination, I might not have even bothered to vote that year, this began an era when it seemed to me any candidate I liked could never get elected, still seems that way. I liked reading your observations and I tried to watch the speech objectively. This speech was memorable to me and those who were fearful of the new world order for his mention of Carol Quigley his Georgetown university professor, who wrote the book Tragedy and Hope, a massive book that outlined how the secret government was created by the political and financial elites to create a one world system of financial control to dominate the political systems of each country in a New World Order. The book was often quoted in the publications of the right libertarian anti communist organization The John Berch Society which I was a member of at that time. I had listened to that part of his first speech before but not the whole thing. Again this is a well done analysis on your part!


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