Former president Bill Clinton speaks at the Democratic National Convention.

Former president Bill Clinton speaks at the Democratic National Convention. Carolyn Kaster/AP

Bill Clinton Tries to Humanize His Wife With a Political Love Story

He relies on nostalgia to portray her as an agent of change, not a card-carrying member of the Washington establishment.

PHIL­ADELPHIA—His­tory was made here Tues­day, with Hil­lary Clin­ton break­ing the pro­ver­bi­al glass ceil­ing to be­come the first wo­man pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee in Amer­ic­an his­tory. But it was Bill Clin­ton’s clos­ing con­ven­tion speech that stole the show.

He made the kind of case for Hil­lary Clin­ton that only he could, of­fer­ing a self-de­prec­at­ing re­min­is­cence of their court­ship in col­lege, her work as an as­pir­ing civil rights act­iv­ist, and her de­vo­tion as a moth­er. His goal was to por­tray his wife as an agent of change even though she’s as es­tab­lished and ex­per­i­enced as any politi­cian in Wash­ing­ton.

The big ques­tion was wheth­er Hil­lary Clin­ton, whose fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings are at dis­mal levels, could be hu­man­ized by one 45-minute speech from her hus­band. And would the san­it­ized, PG-rated story of the Clin­ton mar­riage really per­suade un­de­cided voters, es­pe­cially those fa­mil­i­ar with Bill Clin­ton’s pub­li­cized adul­ter­ies?

Bill Clin­ton’s ar­gu­ment re­lied on pro­fes­sion­al ac­com­plish­ments from her dis­tant past. “She did more pos­it­ive change-mak­ing be­fore she was 30 than most do in a life­time in of­fice,” he said. He dwell­ed on her col­lege years and early ca­reer, while glan­cing over her dec­ades in pub­lic life as a sec­ret­ary of State, sen­at­or, and first lady. At a time when voters can’t stop think­ing about to­mor­row, mak­ing the case for Clin­ton’s early years in­stead of her re­cent re­cord in pub­lic of­fice only un­der­scored how retro her can­did­acy is.

Clin­ton also dared his listen­ers to choose which ver­sion of real­ity they be­lieved—the fairy-tale mar­riage that he out­lined, or the story of a cor­rupt, in­com­pet­ent sec­ret­ary of State that Re­pub­lic­ans told at their con­ven­tion. “How does this square with what you heard at the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion? One is real. The oth­er is made up,” he said. The truth is that neither re­flects real­ity.

I ex­pec­ted Bill Clin­ton to make a stronger case for Hil­lary Clin­ton’s re­cord in polit­ic­al life, bey­ond the rushed and scat­ter­shot ex­amples he offered. The speech was more not­able for what he didn’t say than what he did. He didn’t talk about how she would gov­ern. He barely men­tioned her cre­den­tials on na­tion­al se­cur­ity. He didn’t de­fend her from the GOP’s strident at­tacks about her sup­port for re­gime change in Libya and hand­ling of the Benghazi at­tacks.

That wasn’t his goal Tues­day night. Un­like his ef­fect­ive 2012 con­ven­tion speech mak­ing the case for Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­cord, he took a more per­son­al touch for his wife. He figured it would more ef­fect­ive to speak to Hil­lary Clin­ton’s char­ac­ter, while Obama—her boss—vouches for her re­cord when he speaks at the con­ven­tion Wed­nes­day.

But if voters are go­ing to buy the vir­tu­ous gloss Bill Clin­ton put on his wife, they will have to over­look charges of fin­an­cial chi­canery at the Clin­ton Found­a­tion, as well as the scan­dal over her private email serv­er and her many eva­sions in de­fend­ing it. As al­ways, re­ly­ing on a Clin­ton to make the case for char­ac­ter will be a dicey pro­pos­i­tion.