The ’96 DNC is today probably best remembered for Al Gore doing the macarena. But Bill Clinton ended up giving another good if less inspired address. Something that’s been unusual up to this point—Bill begins the speech by praising the location of the convention itself. Especially for a second term nomination where you don’t have to call out to your primary opponents, I think this is a touching way to begin the speech. Then he gets into something that’s more cliched in these speeches: calling out to some anecdotal constituents he’s met campaigning. He’s at least a lot more effective at it than most. Also early on in the speech is Bill’s own rhetorical signature–”I still believe in a place called ‘Hope.’”
Bill does another usual second term speech cliché by going down the list of all the accomplishments of his administration. This may be a bit annoying to listen to (especially when you watch so many of these speeches) but it’s kind of necessary. You’ve already had time to prove yourself, so for the second go around you need to justify more time in office. Unfortunately he never got to enact the campaign finance reform he mentions as a goal for the future here. And a lot of these accomplishments (unprecedented home ownership, three strikes crime laws) have not aged well at all, to put it very charitably.
There’s an extended metaphor about a bridge, saying “let us build a bridge to XYZ issue”/”bridge to the 21st Century.” And he applies this bridge metaphor to contrast the Democrats as building “a bridge to the future” as opposed to the Republicans “building a bridge to the past.” While Clinton’s not the first to call conservatives people of the past and liberals people of the future, I still to this day think that’s the best kind of framing for the situation (assuming you want to inspire Democrats to vote).
You see some more right-wing/Perot talking points creeping into the DNC here when Bill advertises his balanced budget. Of course, I’m personally in favor of this kind of right-wing talking point; I’ll take this over drug war/tough on crime and neoliberalism any day. There’s a lot of emphasis on education in this speech, more than in any other DNC (and almost certainly RNC) speech of the 20th Century. It’s kind of nice, especially considering that teachers are such a forgotten and often maligned profession today, despite the fact that they do debatably the most important job there is, molding the young people of America.
There’s something else new in this speech: calling out the private sector to help make these various goals Bill extensively lays out a reality. Specifically, he tells them that if they don’t like the welfare system, they should hire someone off welfare. Where this otherwise great speech starts to rub me the wrong way is when the drug war fear-mongering comes up. “I hate them!”/”Something has happened to these young people, they don’t think [drugs are] dangerous anymore.” Then the emotional appeals with his brother’s story. It was a different time. All the same it’s sad. Weed and psychedelics have legitimate medicinal and therapeutic uses that could have been explored all this time. I hate the condescension in thinking that nobody ever smoked weed or shot up heroin before “these young people” too. Bill was alive in the ’60s–you really think drug use wasn’t as pervasive then?
I think (misgivings with the drug war rhetoric aside) if the speech ended here it would have been one of the all-time greats. Instead it goes on another 20 minutes, and you can hear the crowd begin to lose enthusiasm as the applause becomes sparser and quieter. As I’ve said before, these kinds of speeches tend to have a natural half-life of about 30-45 minutes. Longer than that and you begin losing effectiveness and interest by the minute. What doesn’t help is that a lot of these talking points here are just reiterating or building on what was said before. The speech doesn’t really seem to be structured well, or built to a natural climax.
Something else you may find interesting—Bill Clinton gave another call out to gays. It was quick, it was subtle and it was buried in the end, but it’s there. This is when gays were still pariahs in society, and while he’s not explicitly calling for their rights, it’s still pretty significant nevertheless. Most democrats including his wife wouldn’t publicly come out in support of LGBT rights until 2013 when it was safe to do so. It’s a small but significant first step towards LGBT acceptance in mainstream America. (And, over twenty years later, us “T’s” are still waiting…)
I love using Chicago as the campaign anthem. That was both a clever little pun on the DNC location that year and a great song besides. Anyway, this was a good if flawed oration. It could have been one of the best ever had it been better focused and kept under 50 minutes at the very most. Bill is a great speaker with a voice that holds your attention, and I agree with a lot of the policy objectives he lays out here even if some, like the drug war, turn my stomach.