THE BLOG
07/29/2016 09:02 am ET Updated Jul 30, 2017

America Meets Hillary Clinton

Jim Young / Reuters

Who is Hillary Clinton?

For 25 years now, an infinity of ink and airtime has been expended on that very question, reverberating in cyberspace until it overwhelms us. But the Democratic convention asked us to consider a remarkable proposition: that a woman we thought we knew well -- for some, too well -- would turn out to be, as president, the best blind date we ever had.

Getting there was no small thing. The convention opened in the sour spirit of imminent divorce, with the email crisis serving as a last bitter quarrel before someone called a lawyer. Indeed, Sarah Silverman was forced to remind the combatants to remember the kids. Even then, it took the gracious neighbor, Michelle Obama, to invoke what the kids could be, and gruff uncle Bernie to spell out the horrors awaiting them in the custody of Donald Trump.

But though Monday ended far better than it began, the sour spirit of schism lingered.

Then, on Tuesday, this was overcome by hope, humanity and even, at times, joy.

The airing of differences -- a roll call vote much dreaded in the hall -- became a celebration rather than a protest, honoring all that Bernie Sanders and his supporters had achieved. And so when Sanders rose to confirm Hillary Clinton as the nominee, the mood of the convention was more festive than schismatic.

What followed was a political masterstroke: a sequence of testimonials to Clinton's qualities, delivered by witnesses that only a churl would shout down.

The mothers of young black men wrongfully killed plead for the lives of other young men -- and for the lives of police. Of Clinton, one said: "She isn't afraid to bear the full force of our anguish. She doesn't build walls around her heart."

A young woman enslaved by three years of human trafficking said: "Before there were laws to identify and protect victims... Hillary Clinton was fighting to end modern slavery." A young man afflicted by dwarfism recalled how a First Lady had held him while promising the care he needed and, when she held him again two years later, noticed that his back brace was gone.

A cop who had choked down toxic air from 9/11 reprised how Clinton had worked to get health care benefits for afflicted police and firefighters. A woman horribly burned in those attacks described Clinton's calls and visits. A Congressman who lost a firefighter cousin spoke of how Clinton had helped the city recover -- noting, in a lethal aside, that Donald Trump had claimed $150,000 from a fund Clinton had established to help small businesses rebuild.

In all the political debris surrounding Hillary Clinton, such stories get lost. Which made them new and, for that, more telling.

So it was time for Bill Clinton.

This testimonial was, by far, more complicated, inevitably invoking the public trials of their marriage. But only he could recall for us the young woman he met well before the country did.

One doubts that most people knew that the young Hillary Clinton had worked to get handicapped kids access to school; or helped register migrant workers in Texas; or investigated segregated academies in the South; or started a legal aid clinic in Arkansas; or worked for the Children's Defense Fund instead of going to Wall Street. It's a rare American who knew all these things -- perhaps only Bill Clinton. Yet this was what Hillary Clinton had decided to do before anyone else was watching, or judging.

Suddenly Clinton was a three-dimensional woman, fleshed out by anecdote -- a person wholly unlike the Donald Trump we were treated to in Cleveland, a hologram from an Ayn Rand novel.

Now the former president could confront the bloodless and calculating Hillary Clinton of GOP lore.

In truth, like most of us, she is many things, and one could regret that years of political warfare have made her the cautious public figure we have come to know. But her husband reminded us not to judge her by the malign shorthand of politics, or even by her own mistakes. The Republican version is, indeed, a "cartoon"; the "real" woman Bill Clinton introduced is real too.

That woman, he reminded us, had a gritty lifetime of working for change -- often against the odds and in the face of determined opposition. "Life in the real world is complicated and real change is hard... She is the best change maker i've ever known."

The evening ended with a reminder of one way that is true beyond doubt -- a montage of the 44 presidents who came before her, followed by Clinton herself. Lest we forget, the images said, history had just materialized before our eyes. No one there would object to that.

And so, on Wednesday, the Democrats offered what the GOP could not: a compelling sequence of expert witnesses who could tell us, from their own experience, what kind of president this historic figure would be -- and why electing Donald Trump would be a mistake of historic proportions.

Former defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta -- Obama and Clinton's partner in taking out Bin Laden -- began the ongoing theme of compare and contrast. Clinton was knowledgeable and able: Trump an irresponsible amateur who, just that day, had asked the Russians to hack us in order to help him become our president.

Then came Joe Biden.

Everyone knew Joe's story. For 45 years, he had connected the party to the struggles of ordinary men and women. And he had suffered setbacks of his own, some quite terrible. He had lost part of one family to a tragic accident; helped meld the survivors into another close-knit clan. He had twice run for president and lost, suffering embarrassment along the way. Yet he had persevered, becoming an esteemed and able vice president. And just when he imagined reaching for the prize one last time, the death of his beloved son stole his heart for the chase.

So he stood where he had imagined speaking for himself, and spoke for Clinton in the way only he can do: "If you live in the neighborhoods like the ones Jill and I grew up in, if you worry about your job and getting decent pay, if you worry about your children's education, if you're taking care of an elderly parent, then there's only one -- only one -- person in this election will help you... That's Hillary Clinton's life story."

But"[t]hat's not Donald Trump's story... He is trying to tell us he cares about the middle class. Give me a break... He has no clue what makes America great. Actually, he has no clue, period." Including about our safety: "No major party nominee has ever known less or been less prepared to deal with our national security."

When Biden left the stage, he was bathed in warm and poignant applause. For everyone knew this about Joe, too -- it was his final star turn in elected office, and he had given Hillary Clinton his all.

The counterpoint to "middle-class Joe" was a billionaire who is all Trump is not -- Michael Bloomberg.

As an independent, Bloomberg affirmed, he does not adhere to either party. But he knows Hillary Clinton to be capable, caring and collegial -- even when they disagree, she always listens. He does not doubt her fitness to be president.

Then he tore into Trump's only claim to leadership. "New Yorkers know a con when they see one. Truth be told, the richest thing about Donald Trump is his hypocrisy." "I built a business, and I didn't start it with a million dollar check from my father." "Trump says he wants to run America like he's run his business. God help us." And then he raised the perhaps the most crucial issue of the campaign: Trump's glaring personality disorder. "Let's elect a sane, competent person", he implored us -- a stinging contrast between Clinton and Trump.

Then Everyman appeared again in the person of Tim Kaine -- but with a resume which suggests that he can spot a leader. He got right to it. Evoking his son, a Marine newly deployed overseas, he said, simply, "I trust Hiilary Clinton with our son's life."

As for Clinton's life, he argued that we should judge a political leader by a simple but telling criteria: whether they had a passion for lifting others well before seeking office. Then he drove home the message of Tuesday night -- Hillary Clinton has a lifelong passion for helping families and kids.

In contrast, Kaine told us, "Donald Trump has a passion for himself." As one pointed example he asked, "Does anyone here... believe that Donald Trump paid his fair share of taxes?" Then he catalogued all the ordinary people Trump has victimized in business -- an impressive list, to be sure.

Thus far every speaker had added to the cumulative force of endorsement and indictment. But it was left to Barack Obama -- once Hillary Clinton's rival -- to close the evening on her behalf.

He did so in a way which evoked the best of convention speakers, Ted Kennedy and Mario Cuomo. And, perhaps, surpassed them.

The best such speeches speak to the best of us. Obama did that.

His Scotch-Irish grandparents, he recalled, "didn't admire braggarts or bullies. They didn't respect mean-spiritedness, or folks who were always looking for shortcuts in life. Instead they valued traits like honesty and hard work. Kindness and courtesy. Humility; responsibility; helping each other out... True things. Things that last. The things we try to teach our kids.

"They knew these values weren't reserved for one race... They knew these values were exactly what drew immigrants here, and they believed that the children of those immigrants were just as American as their own.... America has changed over the years. But these values my grandparents taught me -- they haven't gone anywhere. They are as strong as ever; still cherished by people of every party, every race, and every faith. They live on in each of us."

The best such speeches link these qualities to the party's nominee. Obama did that:

"That's the America I know. And there is only one candidate in this race who believes in that future, and has devoted her life to it; a mother and grandmother who'd do anything to help our children thrive; a leader with real plans to break down barriers, blast through glass ceilings, and widen the circle opportunity to every single American... And no matter how daunting the odds; no matter how much people try to knock her down, she never, ever quits.

"That's the Hillary I know. That's the Hillary I've come to admire. And that's why I can say with confidence there has never been a man or a woman more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America -- not me, not Bill, no one."

The best such speeches contrast the nominee with her opponent. Obama did that, too -- with devastating irony.

"And then there's Donald Trump. He's not really a plans guy. Not really a facts guy, either. He calls himself a business guy, which is true, but I have to say, I know plenty of businessmen and women who achieve success without leaving a trail of lawsuits, and unpaid workers, and people feeling like they got cheated."

He took on not just Trump, but Trumpism: "He's just offering slogans, and he's offering fear. He's betting that if he scares enough people, he might score just enough votes win this election... [H]e's selling the American people short. We are not a fragile or frightful people. Our power doesn't come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order. We don't look to be ruled...

"America has never been about what one person says he'll do for us. It's always been about what can be achieved by us, together, through the hard, slow, sometimes frustrating, ultimately enduring work of self-government.'' And then came an arrow to the heart of Trumpism -- "anyone who threatens our values, whether Fascist or Communist or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end."

But there was yet more, for he ended by placing his hopes for America in Clinton's hands:

"Time and again, you've picked me up. I hope, sometimes, I've picked you up, too. Tonight, I ask you to do for Hillary Clinton what you did for me... This year, in this election, I'm asking you to join me -- reject cynicism, reject fear, to summon what's best in us; to elect Hillary Clinton as the next President of United States , and show the world we still believe in the promise of this great nation."

Once again, we had seen the very best of Barack Obama on center stage -- the easy command, the interplay of wit and a deep seriousness, the incandescent smile, the soaring appeal to hope over fear. And then a classic moment of political theater -- suddenly Hillary Clinton appeared beside him.

The place erupted. All that was left -- all that now mattered -- was Clinton's acceptance speech on Thursday evening.

Or so one thought. And then on Thursday Khizr Khan -- a Muslim immigrant whose army officer son had been killed in Iraq -- provided one of the most stunning moments of any convention in recent memory.

With his wife beside him dressed in traditional Muslim garb, Khan spoke movingly of their grief and loss. Then he rebuked Donald Trump for betraying all his son had died for:

"Donald Trump, you're asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution?" Pulling out his own pocket edition, he said, "I will gladly lend you my copy."

Asking Trump if he had ever visited Arlington National Cemetery, he instructed: "Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities.

"You have sacrificed nothing and no one."

The quiet power of that statement still lingered in the air when it was time for Clinton to speak.

Even by the harrowing standards of her public career, this was a daunting challenge. In coming to her aid so powerfully, Obama had set the bar sky-high -- while a serviceable public speaker, by her own reckoning she lacks the rhetorical gifts of the last two Democratic presidents.

More difficult, perhaps, was to embody the human and caring Hillary Clinton summoned by the last three nights, and yet capture the historic moment with a resolve which reassured her fretful and suspicious countrymen in a fractious time. All that, and still more: the delegates had passed through conflict to a communal sense of promise it was now her purpose to sustain.

It was of much benefit, then, that she was introduced by a final witness to her life, her own daughter.

Since childhood, Chelsea Clinton had lived in her parents' harsh spotlight. At times, this must have felt unendurable. But she had endured it, and more, and now this served her mother well.

With ease and warmth, Chelsea spoke of "my wonderful, thoughtful, hilarious mother," telling anecdotes of Clinton's deep pleasure and engagement in being a mother and grandmother. A political commonplace, perhaps. But it was obvious that, unlike Trump's kids, Chelsea actually knew her mother, because her mother had actually been one. And done it well.

At last it was Clinton's turn.

She met the moment with an air of confidence. And, more than usual, she spoke of what lies beneath her sometimes opaque surface: "The truth is, through all these years of public service, the 'service' part has always come easier to me then the 'public' part. I get it that some people just don't know what to make of me."

But she, too, had a story -- a modest family, a mother who was abandoned by her parents as a young girl, whose first grade teacher saw that she had nothing to eat, and brought extra food share. "The lesson she passed on to me years later stuck with me: No one gets through life alone."

She remembered that, Clinton told the delegates, when she met a young girl in a wheelchair on the back porch of her house, prevented by her disability from attending school. "I couldn't stop thinking of my mother and what she went through as a child. It became clear to me that simply caring is not enough."

Thus her work with the Children's Defense Fund to ensure that kids with disabilities have the right to go to school. "But how do you make an idea like that real?" she asked rhetorically. "You do it step by step, year by year."

That experience, she asserted, underlies her reputation as a bit of a grind: "I sweat the details of policy. Because it is not just a detail if it's your kid, if it's your family. It's a big deal. And it should be a big deal to your president."

She did not need to mention Donald Trump.

Instead she spoke of her plans to make the lives of Americans better. Unlike Trump, she has a lot of them. Appointing justices who will get money out of politics and expand voting rights. Fighting climate change, and creating clean energy jobs. Comprehensive immigration reform to grow the economy and keep families together. Profit-sharing for workers.

Raising the minimum wage to a living wage. Equal pay for women. Investing in infrastructure. Making college affordable for all. Education and job retraining to help those displaced by the global economy. Easing credit for small businesses.

And what of ISIS? As president, she promised, she would strike their sanctuaries from the air, support local forces on the ground, and strengthen our intelligence to prevent attacks at home. "It won't be easy or quick," she allowed, "but make no mistake -- we will prevail."

Here, at last, she got to Trump. Quoting him to lethal effect -- "I know more about ISIS than the generals do" -- she told him, "No, Donald, you don't."

Then she went to work disqualifying him as commander-in-chief: "Donald Trump can't even handle the rough-and-tumble of a presidential campaign. He loses his cool at the slightest provocation. When he's gotten a tough question from a reporter. When he's challenged in a debate. When he sees a protester at a rally.

"Imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons."

Nor did she neglect Trump's hypocrisy. "Please explain to me what part of America First leads him to make Trump ties in China, not Colorado. Trump suits in Mexico, not Michigan. Trump furniture in Turkey, not Ohio. Trump picture frames in India, not Wisconsin.

"Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again -- well, he can start by actually making things in America all again."

But then Trump, she argued forcefully, is antithetical to the spirit of America itself: "Americans don't say 'I alone can fix it.'... He wants us to fear the future and fear each other."

As for Clinton herself, she quoted her mother's Methodist credo: "Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can." By the testament of others, spelled out in the four nights of the convention, her public career was built on such an effort.

Then the speech was over, and history made. Smiling, for long minutes Clinton basked in the celebration -- the cheers and tears and balloons falling -- and also, it seemed, the relief and satisfaction of a job well done.

By most observers' reckonings, it was. The speech lacked Obama's eloquence -- that is not her gift. But it did its work, and so did the convention. The idealistic young woman Americans had met at last now lived within the battle-tested candidate who, perhaps, they finally knew a little better.

Advantage Hillary Clinton.