Critic's Notebook: Hillary Clinton Gives the Best Speech of Her Life at the Democratic Convention
Not known for her oratory talents, the Democratic nominee tapped into her inner Obama with a forceful, eloquent address that attempted to make her case to Americans of all political leanings.
On the final night of the Democratic National Convention, the visuals trumped (pardon the expression) the message. When Hillary Clinton stepped onto the stage as the first female presidential nominee of a major political party, the arena erupted in joy. Clad in an angelic white pantsuit and hugging her daughter, Hillary made history in a way that one hopes even her political opponents would celebrate.
It was certainly the most important speech of her life. After all, there's a significant segment of the population who wouldn't believe a word Hillary says even if she were hooked up to a polygraph machine.
Nonetheless, she delivered a forceful speech that touched every major political point—at times it felt more like her first State of the Union address, or possibly Barack Obama's eighth, than an acceptance speech—while hurling savage digs at the Republican nominee. As with many of the previous speakers, she often had to do little more than quote Trump directly.
"I alone can fix it?" she mocked, before adding the ever popular, ironic, "Really?"
She also took pains to address the concerns of voters who don't trust her.
"I get it that some people don't know what to make of me," she conceded, ignoring that it's not so much that people don't know what to make of her than that they just don't like her.
"I sweat the details of policy," she said, accepting the popular perception of her as a policy wonk. The assertion effectively served to differentiate her from Trump—who, if he gets elected president, will probably find a way to outsource the job.
Referring to Trump's acceptance speech, in which he came across like a fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, Hillary cracked, "He spoke for 70-odd minutes, and I do mean odd." She asked, "Do you really think Donald Trump has the temperament to be commander-in-chief?" and everyone in the arena understood that it was a rhetorical question.
"A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man you can trust with nuclear weapons," she continued, even as Trump was furiously trying to think of something nasty to tweet in response. Of course, he probably loved all the attention. After the frequent chanting of the phrase "Love trumps hate" that went on throughout the convention, he was consulting with his lawyers to see if he was entitled to royalties.
Carefully walking the line between centrist and progressive appeals, Hillary also took pains to reach out—or, more accurately, suck up—to Bernie's followers.
"I've heard you. Your cause is our cause," she told them, even as the camera cut to protestors holding up Jill Stein signs.
Overall, it was a positive and inspirational speech, and there were moments, such as when she said that she was "standing here as my mother's daughter, and my daughter's mother," that raised goosebumps. She acknowledged her many career ups and downs by saying, "More than a few times, I've had to pick myself up and get back in the game." And she established her pop culture bona fides by quoting a song from Hamilton (Gee, thanks … like it wasn't already impossible to get tickets.)
We'll soon find out if Hillary succeeded in her goal of winning over undecided and independent voters (and anyone still undecided at this point should be forced to reapply for citizenship). But she certainly managed, at least for a moment, to seemingly quell the Bernie-or-Busters and unify the party.
Hillary was introduced by her daughter Chelsea, who, unlike Ivanka Trump, missed the opportunity to make a quick buck by selling copies of the dress she was wearing onstage. As opposed to the Trump brood, whose impersonal speeches seemed to indicate that they had first met their father when they filled out their job applications, Chelsea took pains to make her tribute deeply personal. At times it was a little TMI: we learned that Hillary loves to FaceTime with her granddaughter; that Chelsea was fascinated by dinosaurs as a child; that she and her mother bonded over the book A Wrinkle in Time and the movie Pride and Prejudice (look for their sales to spike on Amazon); and that the family, gasp, had dinner table conversations.
Still, the speech was touching, especially when Chelsea stared into the camera and told her mother, "Mom, grandma would be so, so proud of you!"
There was the obligatory, hagiographic video biography of the candidate, this one narrated by God's earthly stand-in, Morgan Freeman. Don Draper couldn't have created a better commercial, although there might have been a better choice to produce the film than Shonda Rhimes. After all, the titles of her hit shows, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, could easily have served as themes of the Republican convention.
Despite there being no other marquee names, this was actually one of the strongest nights of the convention. At times, it more closely resembled the GOP than the Democrats, with an emphasis on such themes as faith, patriotism, law and order, and a strong military. Not to mention that there were several Republican speakers on the bill…or, as Fox News would put it, commercial breaks. They included Doug Elmets, who served in the Reagan White House.
Riffing on one of the most famous putdowns in political history, Elmets declared, "I knew Ronald Reagan. I worked for Ronald Reagan. Donald Trump, you are no Ronald Reagan!" The crowd erupted in cheers, and somewhere, Dan Quayle was shuddering.
Another highlight was the appearance of Dallas Sheriff Lupe Valdez, the only female Hispanic sheriff in the country, who is, quite simply, a badass. (For the first time in my life I felt an urge to move to Texas.) She introduced several family members of slain police officers, who spoke poignantly of their loved ones' sacrifices.
The Reverend William Barber III turned the arena into a giant tent revival meeting, his booming cadences adding extra urgency to such exhortations as "We are being called, like our foremothers and fathers, to be the moral defibrillators of our time!" And some Republicans watching his speech might have needed a defibrillator after hearing him describe Jesus as "a brown-skinned, Palestinian Jew."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar introduced a video, Hillary's America, which is, ironically, also the title of Dinesh D'Souza's current hit documentary demonizing the Democratic nominee. Uh, didn't anyone at the DNC think to make a change there?
Perhaps the most powerful speech of the evening came from Khizr Khan, whose son, Humayun S.M. Khan, is one of 14 American Muslims who've died serving in the U.S. military since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Describing himself and his wife, who stood by his side, as "patriotic American Muslims," Khan railed at the Republican nominee.
"Have you even read the United States Constitution?" he asked Trump. Taking a bound volume from his lapel pocket, he added, "I will gladly lend you my copy." The crowd, to put it mildly, went nuts.
Then there was John Allen, a retired four-star general who appeared onstage with dozens of veterans. Addressing the crowd like a Marine drill sergeant — he did everything but instruct them to drop and give him twenty — he made such a powerful case for Hillary being the only appropriate choice for commander-in-chief that it's a wonder half the audience didn't immediately run out to enlist. He was frequently interrupted by chants from the audience of "No More War" and "U.S.A.," which only served to prove that no matter what people are chanting, they sound like idiots. Can't people just do The Wave instead?
Before performing her hit songs "Rise" and "Roar," Katy Perry spoke briefly, making a point to mention that she has several phone messages from Hillary saved on her answering machine. She told the crowd that the most important thing they could do was to go to the ballot box, if only to "cancel out your weird cousin's vote." Which, in this bizarro election year, is probably as good a reason as any.