WILMINGTON, Delaware — Some Democrats might’ve recognized the quote immediately: a gut-punch of a line from her concession speech, delivered four years ago, Nov. 8, 2016, on a rainy morning at the New Yorker Hotel.
“After the last election, I said, ‘We owe Donald Trump an open mind and the chance to lead.’ I really meant it.”
But when Hillary Clinton opened her live address to the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night, the first she’s given to a national audience since she led the party in her bid to be the first woman president, she failed to mention the line’s exact origin.
The omission seemed deliberate.
Clinton’s short speech, delivered from her living room in Chappaqua, New York, bore few markings of a woman whose loss still occupies a painful place in the shared memory of the Democratic Party.
It was not a particularly ideological speech. It did not lay out a policy agenda, though she did ask voters to vote for Democratic priorities, like paid family leave and “healthcare for everyone.”
Instead, at 72 years old — as a woman who served as first lady, then US senator, then secretary of state, who ran for president twice and lost, chafed under the glare of public life, and saw her chances at the White House diminished by a breakdown of the political system she strove to lead — Clinton made the case for an old-fashioned kind of patriotism, a tradition of public service, and a political system that can still inspire.
“To all the young people: Don’t give up on America,” Clinton said. "Despite our flaws and problems, we have come so far. And we can still be a more just and equal country, full of opportunities previous generations could never have imagined.”
As she set out to draft Wednesday’s remarks at her home in Westchester County, where she lives next door to her daughter and grandchildren, Clinton had a particular vision in mind — something personal, forward-looking, with as little political language as possible, stripped of stock phrases and rallying cries, according to aides familiar with the planning process.
That plainly spoken appeal — “don’t give up on America” — sounded again and again in Clinton’s remarks. The former Democratic nominee asked voters to remember, or perhaps reimagine, a grander and lengthy tradition of elected leadership: The line she quoted from her 2016 concession speech, suggesting Democrats give Donald Trump an open mind and the chance to serve that all presidents deserve, was itself inspired by the letter George H.W. Bush left in the Oval Office after losing his reelection, a gracious and humble welcome to the man who defeated him, Clinton’s husband.
“Your success now is our country’s success,” Bush wrote in 1993. “I am rooting hard for you.”
“I wish Donald Trump had been a better president. Because America needs a better president than this,” Clinton said Wednesday. “We need Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”
Clinton recast the Democratic ticket, where Harris is the first Black or Asian American woman to serve as a major party’s vice presidential nominee, as a testament to American politics as a powerful tool of representation.
“Tonight I am thinking of the girls and boys who see themselves in America’s future because of Kamala Harris,” said Clinton, whose allies have sought to define her legacy in politics as a “trailblazer” who created space, directly and indirectly, for generations of women in politics.
“I know a thing or two about the slings and arrows coming her way,” Clinton said of Harris. “Kamala can handle them all.”
Clinton and Harris, the 55-year-old US senator from California, do not have a particularly close relationship, and some Democrats might bristle at the suggestion that a woman of color’s success came as a product of a white woman’s rise in politics.
The two do share one intimate connection: the loss of a mutual former staffer, Tyrone Gayle, who died of cancer in 2018 and who Clinton praised in her speech.
Clinton’s case for Biden, her colleague in Barack Obama's administration for eight years, was equally personal, recalling conversations the two shared about loss and family. “As the saying goes, the world breaks everyone at one point or another, and afterward, many are stronger in the broken places,” Clinton said. “Joe Biden knows how to heal because he’s done it himself.”
Her final request to voters on Wednesday was simple and direct.
Citing her narrow loss in 2016, she asked Americans to vote.
“This can’t be another ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ election. If you’re voting by mail, request your ballot now, and send it back as soon as you can. If you vote in person, do it early. Bring a friend and wear a mask. Become a poll worker,” she said.
“Most of all, no matter what, vote.”