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Susan Estrich: That Old Clinton Magic Picks Up Where It Left Off

12 years after leaving office, former president returns to spotlight more popular than ever

Back in 1988, we had what we thought was a great new idea. There was only one slot for a keynote speech at the Democratic convention on Monday night, but we had two great candidates for the job. One was the late Ann Richards, then the treasurer of the state of Texas and a candidate for governor, famous for her wit and wisdom (remember: George Bush was born “with a silver foot in his mouth”). The other was the governor of Arkansas, a young star of the party, a charismatic speaker, a Southern moderate and a good friend. We needed the votes of women; we needed votes among more conservative white men.

How could we have them both?

We asked Richards to keynote on Monday and Bill Clinton to nominate Michael Dukakis on Wednesday. Clinton’s initial reaction was disappointment. Our answer, my answer, at the time was that this could be just as good of a slot; we would cut out all of the seconding speeches, and he would be the one who told the candidate’s story and made the case for his election.

The first draft we saw of Clinton’s speech was not exactly what we had in mind. It went on, at some length, about international economic policy. Hand it to Clinton: No one I’ve ever met in politics has a better sense of where we are headed, and we were certainly headed for a global economy that most of us could not have foreseen in 1988.

But this was a convention. So we sent word back that while the international economy was certainly interesting, what we really needed — particularly since our candidate was less comfortable than most with either singing his own praises or crucifying his opponent — was a more political speech that would set the tone for the nomination of the party’s candidate for president.

Maybe we weren’t clear that we also meant “drop” the international economy stuff.

The rest is history. The history of a disaster. It went on and on. Poor Tad Devine, legendary political consultant, kept hitting the red button. The biggest applause line was: “In conclusion ...”

And for years afterward people would say to me, “Who came up with the hare-brained idea of wasting a guy who was a better speaker than the candidate on a single nominating speech?”

As in most things, if you just wait long enough ...

Last Wednesday at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, Clinton did brilliantly what he (and we) did quite a bit less brilliantly 24 years ago. Putting aside the tensions of the past, he made the case for President Barack Obama and against Mitt Romney with passion, eloquence and genuine conviction. I have no doubt that more people watched and listened that night because he was the headliner.

It is, of course, no small triumph that 12 years after leaving office, Clinton returned to the Democratic convention more popular than ever. And to listen to the people who tried to destroy his presidency now heaping praise on his tenure so they can knock Obama with it confirms once again the divide between politics and principle. The Clinton triumph is not just the product of nostalgia — although there certainly is nostalgia for those years of peace and prosperity — but of his tireless efforts and commitment to helping the world’s least fortunate in the years since. He has been an admirable former president.

But it speaks just as well of the current president that he wanted Clinton there. I’ve been around long enough to remember cases where candidates openly worried about being upstaged at their own conventions and arranged speaker slots so that wouldn’t happen. We used to joke that that was what Monday night was for. For this convention, there was no Monday night.

Clinton dazzled Wednesday night because Obama asked him to. And that speaks well of both of them.

— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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