Clinton Builds a Bridge to Obama

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Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Former President Bill Clinton arrives to give his speech at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 27

Bill Clinton raised the roof of the Pepsi Center and shut down with a crash the complaints that people named Clinton somehow never manage to say anything nice about Barack Obama. Clinton was cued up for 10 minutes; his clock ran out halfway through, but on he went, making previous speakers seem small and pinched by comparison as he laid out the case for the man he described as being "on the right side of history," as though unwilling to leave a single argument on the table.

Then came Joe Biden, whose very lack of polish moved the message out of the brainpan and into the heart. Obama writes a speech with a fountain pen. Biden writes with his fists. But he was passionate and angry and human, the very qualities Obama has been tagged for lacking.

On the third night of the Democratic Convention in Denver, it finally started to feel like a family instead of a fight.

Even Senator John Kerry turned in a strong performance, taking his good friend John McCain down a peg on foreign policy and delivering his brief address with an edge and wit he persistently lacked during his own campaign for President. Kerry drew a distinction between what he suggested were the principled stands of Senator McCain and the expedient ones of "Candidate McCain." Ticking off policies on which McCain had reversed himself, Kerry said, "Talk about being for it before you're against it," playfully reprising one of his own more disastrous statements on the Iraq war.

The day did not always promise harmony and light. At a downtown meeting with 4,000 supporters in the afternoon, Hillary Clinton officially released her delegates so they would have "the chance to vote what's in [their] heart during the roll call vote." As for herself, she noted, "I signed my ballot this morning for Senator Obama. But a lot of other people who are signing their ballots have made a different choice."

By the time everyone was inside the hall, however, the self-destructive spirit of anti-Obama dissent had drained away. When New York's turn came to vote, Clinton moved to suspend the roll call and select Obama by acclamation. The band played Love Train. And so it was that Barack Obama — human jigsaw puzzle of races and ethnicities — became the first African-American standard-bearer of a major party. There were many black faces with tears rolling down them, and even though Obama plays down the historic nature of his achievement, it's clear that a lot of people saw the beginning of a different America at 4:38 p.m. mountain time. Or at least the end of an old one.

Wednesday was supposed to be "Securing America’s Future" night. There were policemen and firefighters, diplomats and Senators and soldiers testifying to Obama's strength and strategic judgment. Lest it all sound too muscular, Melissa Etheridge sang to the Big Tent, weaving God Bless America into Give Peace a Chance into Born in the USA. But it was Clinton's appearance that lit up the hall: "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow," Fleetwood Mac sang, and the crowd roared for Bill, no signs, only flags and love for the only living man who gave them the White House twice.

"I am here, first, to support Barack Obama," he began — just so we were clear. And what followed suggested that he had taken all the medicine Hillary didn't. He paid tribute not just to the generic superiority of any Democrat compared to John McCain, but specific, personal tribute to Obama's power to inspire, his "intelligence and curiosity," his "humanity," his strength, his policies, his judgment and his priorities. He praised McCain's character as well — just to soften him up before bludgeoning Republicans for eight years of waste and greed and global incompetence.

And then the whole father-son, mentor-protégé, competitive generational narrative got up and danced as Clinton laid on his hands: Sixteen years ago, he told the roaring crowd, Democrats gave him the honor of leading them: "We prevailed in a campaign in which the Republicans said I was too young and too inexperienced to be Commander in Chief. Sound familiar?" It didn't work then, he said, "because we were on the right side of history. And it won’t work in 2008, because Barack Obama is on the right side of history." A President who spent eight years after the White House building himself into a global treasure and then ruined it in eight weeks on the campaign trail helped himself by helping someone else.

It turns out he still believes in a place called Hope.

Then it was Biden's turn: Delegates pulled out their bright-red Biden banners for the first time, turning the floor into a vast sea anemone. Introduced by his son Beau, Biden staked himself deep in the soil of the American Dream and Irish Blarney, calling out the wife who leaves him "breathless and speechless at the same time," his kids, his mom, Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden. He aimed directly at the fears and frustrations and pride of the working class, who know that work is "more than a paycheck. It's dignity. It's respect. It's about whether you can look your children in the eye and say, 'We're going to be O.K.' "

At times he seemed totally lost, like he was seeing the speech on the teleprompter for the first time. But you finally saw blood, flesh and spit, saw a real human being talking about America's fortunes and Obama's vision like he was leaning against your back door and grabbing you by the lapels. And when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair pivoted to foreign policy, he took out Karl Rove's playbook and went straight after McCain's greatest perceived strength. He ran down a litany of charges, on Afghanistan, Iran, time lines in Iraq, and declared that, "On the most important national security issues of our times, John McCain was wrong. Barack Obama was right." And while the crowd couldn't always follow, or get, the response to his call, it may have been that, for now at least, what he was saying didn't matter as much as how he said it — though he better not expect that luxury to last. Having wound his way through Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri and Montana, Obama made his way into the hall for the first time to cheer on his partner. "Hello, Democrats!" he hollered, and the room roared in return. He called out Michelle, declared that Hillary had "rocked the house" and, striking his most respectful tone, thanked "President Bill Clinton, who reminded us what its like when you have a President who actually puts people first."

Now the whole show moves to the football stadium next door. Obama invited the world: "Everyone can come and join the party" — a party that finally started to put the pieces together.