Tuesday was a president-heavy day.
First, there was Tony Goldwyn. (Fictional) President Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III, known to most as “Fitz” on Scandal. He was there to advocate for would-be president Hillary Clinton, and managed to refer to another president, Nelson Mandela, in his two-minute speech. But I was in the arena for one president only: the 42nd president of the United States, a cultural icon known to me and you as Bill Clinton.
In his comedy special The Comeback Kid, comedian John Mulaney described Bill Clinton as “a smooth and fantastic hillbilly who should be declared emperor of the United States of America,” and at home in London, watching it on Netflix, I nodded vigorously. The Bill Clinton of my childhood memories has merged with the Bill Clinton of popular culture, and the result is a larger-than-life character, half-myth, half-man, all captivating menace. On Tuesday night, I got to look at the face of the man whose presidency defined an era and whose defining trait was…charm.
Listen. He’s still got it.
Have you seen Bill Clinton lately? What the hell is he trying to pull?
Those aren’t my words, but Mulaney’s. The Bill Clinton who came to the stage last night was a twinkly grandpa, in a slim suit, sans the reading glasses. He spoke with his hands, and with a laugh in his voice, and you half expected him to launch into a little song and brief sax solo. Hey, I can’t do nothing to nobody no more, his presence said. Oh, me? I’m just an old, old man; I don’t have the appetites. (Mulaney again.)
Clinton’s mission on Tuesday night was to draw a full picture of his spouse, and the brush strokes would be specific – broad where they needed to be, but also precise and minute as required. For this job, he would use every tool at his disposal: that familiar accent, the little “aw, shucks” lip bite he does, the relatively new air of assured humility he wears as close to his skin as those suits, the quiet dignity of having been No. 42, a two-term president.
And it worked.
I am unnerved by charm, as I have written before. But Bill Clinton does something that somehow reaches further than mere captivation.
Charming men are a currency we know how to deal with. In Bill Clinton – whose charm always felt like a tangibly easy thing – we saw what happens when it meets power and opportunity. But throughout and long after the Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky days, there has been a seeming readiness to forgive or at least excuse Bill Clinton. There is so much evidence to suggest that a charming man, especially one who modulates it well enough to keep it on the right side of sleaze or slime, has an easier life. And because charm eases the way, Bill stood on that stage and told us about a Hillary we had never seen: one whom he found personally “magnetic.”
“In the spring of 1971,” he began, “I met a girl.” It was like a rom-com, except the denouement was that girl taking up residence in the presidential mansion, instead of riding into the sunset with her beau. The equation we were being asked to complete went something like this: I, a man you love and find charming, find this woman, a person who many of you continue to resist, magnetic. If I find her irresistible, shouldn’t you? I looked around the room, at the people who were probably the most disposed to changing their minds, and I think it worked. On Twitter, I read of non-acolytes swayed too.
When women are charming, we project onto them a wider societal distrust of their entire gender. What the hell is any charming woman trying to pull? Hillary Clinton’s image is built on a persona that is serious, tough, and stiff, but her offences are on a sliding scale explicitly used for women. Even as we punish women who embody all these things, we would rather they be tough than charming. Bill and Hillary, one of the most recognisable couples in America, are polar opposites, both in terms of what they project and what we expect from them. To think of them as linked (and so tightly!) is a bit of a headfuck. They are a walking lesson in gender studies.
Bill’s job was to make us root for Hillary. Every single one of her accomplishments he listed would have sounded absurd coming from his wife’s own mouth. This is a general problem for many successful women – a brag is never comely, darling. So who better to sell us on Hillary than the ultimate salesman, a man we’ve bought goods off of in the past? Because we know Bill Clinton. In the introductory video that played just before his appearance on stage, just the sound of his voice, that famous Arkansas drawl, had the delegates on the convention floor in a mild tizzy. He’s been wooing people for most of his adult life. And he couldn’t have been better placed last night.
The room, carried along by the power of Bill’s oratory (it was, as I said on Twitter, like having a flawed-but-beloved uncle in the room at Christmas), seemed more accepting of Hillary. There’s an essay to be written about powerful women requiring the endorsement of men, but this is not that essay. Hillary’s achievements, already impressive in anyone’s mouth, took on a warmth when spoken from her husband’s. The convention audience around me hummed at the moments he presented us with an image of Hillary-the-mum – on her hands and knees putting liner paper in Chelsea’s college room drawers – or her refusal to marry him at his first proposal. Results are not yet conclusive, but that room seemed ready to buy what Bill was selling.
Will it carry all the way to November? Or did the magic begin to fade as soon as Bill walked off the stage to blissed-out applause? Perhaps. At the end of the night, Hillary appeared on video where she alluded to passing the torch to younger generations of women (“I may become the first woman president, but one of you is next”). It was a nice touch. The next morning, a New York Times headline read “Bill Clinton Presents His Wife as an Object of Desire,” a little breathlessly. The implication being: but were you seduced?