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Bill Clinton Plays Second Fiddle to a First Lady

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Bill Clinton had a receptive audience when he took the stage on Day Two of the Democratic National Convention. The Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia was still ripe with the emotion stirred up earlier in the evening when his wife became the first woman presidential nominee of a major party.

Bill told the story of their shared journey -- with a few notable omissions. He began with the oft-told tale of their courtship: "I asked her to take a walk with me to the Yale Art Museum. We've been walking and talking and laughing together ever since."

Still, Bill, whose relationship to the nominee is, let’s say, complicated, didn't tell us as much as we learned about Hillary Clinton the night before. Even though the Clintons have been in the national spotlight incessantly since at least 1992, we continue to feel “we hardly know her,” to borrow a phrase.

Yet on Monday, we were able to see the Democratic nominee in a new light thanks to testimony from an unlikely voice: first lady Michelle Obama. She did the impossible, making clear why Clinton was right for the country, with a needed human touch.

Anyone -- including Bill Clinton -- can make the case that Hillary, like so many men before her, is steely enough to be Father of Our Country. She’s a fighter, taking incoming for years from the right-wing conspiracy, as she’s fond of pointing out. For better or worse, she wanted to invade Libya to unseat Muammar Gadaffi and has yet to regret her vote in favor of the Iraq war. Vladimir Putin’s fingers are crossed that come next year he gets Donald Trump and not the former secretary of state. 

It took Michelle Obama to present Clinton as a woman in full, someone who could also be mother of our country, capable of soft power as much as hard. With a speech Melania Trump might want to borrow from someday, the first lady unexpectedly silenced a restive audience that had been waiting for Senator Bernie Sanders

“We listen to each other, we lean on each other, because we are always stronger together,” Obama said. Clinton can be trusted, she said, “to shape our children for the next four or eight years."

Everyone knew who wouldn’t do that if he made it to the White House, but Obama's deliberate failure to call out the Republican nominee by name is a lesson for Clinton to follow. No one wins by meeting Trump mano-a-mano in the gutter, where he has a strong home-field advantage. Just ask "Little" Marco Rubio or "Lyin' Ted" Cruz or President Barack Obama, who had to produce his long-form birth certificate to quiet Trump's birther crusade.

"When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don't stoop to their level," Michelle Obama said. "No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high."

And she showed us how that's done. Her speech was the antidote to the poison of the dark, desperate, and dystopian vision of the country offered by Trump last week in Cleveland.

“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves," she said. "And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn and because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all of our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”

In one moment, we were reminded of America the Beautiful, how far we’ve come since slavery, from our founding when women were denied the vote, to now, when a woman is nominated for president. Young women, hear Obama roar. This did not happen in a day.  

If we needed a further reminder of the contrast between the candidates, Trump had his first post-convention rally at the same time as Democrats were beginning their convention. Teleprompter-free and unleashed, he was full-frontal Trump, anarchist and authoritarian at the same time. He was sweating in the heat of Roanoke, Virginia, and announced that he wouldn’t be paying for the venue because it was insufficiently air-conditioned, and threatened to leave the hotel that had rented him the space holding the bag, as he has done with so many vendors, students, and creditors before.

It wasn’t even the hotel’s fault. Trump's staff had kept the doors open for hours as attendees and the heat came in. A leader would think of someone else’s discomfort. Has Trump ever done that?

Trump then took with a vengeance after the fire marshals who had stopped letting people in -- because of the heat and because the room was beyond capacity. Marshals are like first-responders, no agenda but safety, knowing to close the doors when even a false smoke alarm going off would create a dangerous stampede for the exits. Trump had lip-curling disdain for them.

Sure, the Democrats' exercise in democracy in Philly is  messy, but it's not a loud rejection of the norms of behavior. You couldn’t ask for more from a defeated candidate than what Sanders delivered. He appealed to his angry supporters' heads with a point-by-point analysis of why he stands with Clinton. And their hearts. He understand their disappointment because, he admitted, in his honest way, “I think it's fair to say that no one is more disappointed than I am.”

It was moving to watch the roll call Tuesday night that made Hillary Clinton's nomination official, as Sanders announced: "I move that all votes, all votes cast by delegates be reflected in the official record and I move that Hillary Clinton be selected as the nominee of the Democratic Party for president of the United States.” His followers are not party regulars but believers, decent and earnest like him, who yearn for a more progressive Democratic Party. Their fever will not break overnight. Bernie will do everything he can to see that it breaks before November. That’s a good night.

Michelle Obama, who wasn't always so keen on Hillary, vouched for her in a more personal way than Trump’s children did for their father in Cleveland, exemplifying the discipline, steadfastness, gratitude, empathy and civility it takes to honor the White House. She reminded the parent in all of us that we will sacrifice anything for our children and shield them from forces that would steer them wrong. Without saying who wouldn’t do that, we knew. 

The historic nominee could not ask for more.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net