Irony Sells

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I rarely cared for Clinton's speeches in the past: They usually seemed canned, sanctimonious, and oriented towards the bland "uplift" that is supposed to resonate with soccer moms. So it was a surprise as well as a pleasure to hear his genial, witty, and very effective oration to the Democrats tonight. Set aside the speech's actual content, which had the poor signal-to-bullshit ratio you'd expect at a political convention. Revel instead in the man's rhetorical style: By adopting a mildly ironic tone, Clinton transformed what might otherwise be weaknesses into strengths. How do you attack the rich without alienating centrist voters? By reminding them that you're rich too. How do you contrast Kerry's service in Vietnam with Bush's party-hardy days in the National Guard? By noting that you were a draft-dodger yourself. The man even managed to mock his legendary ego, in the course of singing the praises of John Edwards. I half expected him to invoke Monica Lewinsky to make the case for John Kerry's personal values.

There is irony that works, and there is irony that doesn't. I'm not sure what surrealist strategist suggested that Jimmy Carter was the best man to address foreign policy, or that Hillary should talk about health care. But Bill Clinton knew what he was doing, and he did it well. That's the first speech I've enjoyed at a Democratic convention since 1988, when Jesse Jackson and Ann Richards stole the spotlight from the last unappealing nominee from Massachusetts.

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  1. Look, I can’t stand either the Republicans or Democrats, and in my area there were four stations broadcasting convention coverage. That’s four stations too many, IMO. However, I was able to stomach a significant portion of Clinton’s strategically smart speech, which is more than I can say for almost any other political speaker of either party. That alone was a major victory for Clinton. My favorite part was where he said something to the effect of “You might recall that the Republicans were kind of mean to me…” Hehehe. That was a good laugh.

    My big question now- seeing as how I do not watch much Saturday Night Live these days- is what happens to Robert Smigel’s cartoon series The Ex-Presidents now that Reagan is dead. Who’s going to tell Jimmy Carter not to wet his pants? Have there been any new installments in this series?

  2. Now, be careful. Don’t go where you don’t really want to go. The Beirut bombing happened on Reagan’s “watch,” Somalia was Bush I’s adventure, and Osama rose to power during both of their presidencies. Clinton tried to kill Osama. Bush Jr., who was the United States Commander in Chief on 9/11/01, ignored Osama bin Laden for 9 months. That, my friend, is not refutable.

    I (for the most part) agree with you. But your earlier statement was, basically, that the 1990’s under Clinton was a magical time of peace and prosperity. This is patently untrue.

    The fact is, the US has been on a collision course with radical Islamists for the past 20 years, regardless of who was president.

  3. having the benefit of TV analyses, i’d say that your take is utterly ‘conventional’ if not wise

    the only ironies that struck me from clinton’s standard drone were:

    1) his contrast of dems as uniters vs. the other 46% of us who favor capitalist exploitation and global bullying

    2) the party of progress will seek to restore our pre/9-11 glory by auctioning government at home and bowing to criticism abroad

    it’s clear why talking heads heap phoney praise on clinton’s lackluster style in the absence of any victories on substance, but it’s sad that Reason would tow that line just to say you were there

  4. If style is more important to you than substance, then perhaps it was a good speech. On the other hand, I cannot think that way, the substance was foul. Clinton repeats the Dem canard that the party occupying the presidency at the moment should get credit or blame for the immediate state of the economy. The Dems get credit for the ’93 to ’00 boom, despite the fact that the upturn started under the last part of the Bush 41 adminstration, and that economy went bust almost immediately after Clinton left office. All which rather suggests that Clinton, more than anything else, enjoyed good timing.

  5. Jesse, if you can even stand to hear Clinton’s voice at this late date, I almost have to question your sanity.

  6. Here come the Clinton Bashers.

    It was a very good speech, and by good I mean effective. If Clinton campaigns heavily for Kerry, he will probably be able to swing a couple states. Look for Bill to have a high profile in Arkansas, Tennessee, Ohio and Missouri.

  7. Well, I watched half of Letterman and went to bed after the Clinton speech, so I didn’t get the “benefit” of TV analyses (though I did have a peek at the Jeff Greenfield interview with Teresa Heinz K.: Letterman was right on in his monologue when he said she was the bonanza he’d been praying for all these years) but I agree with Jesse. I don’t know what you were all expecting: Democrats don’t like Bush, tax cuts, or scary looking (i.e., fun) semi-automatic weapons, and love unionized cops, NATO allies, and self-regard. Inside those rather limiting parameters, I thought it was a genuinely arousing and amusing speech, particularly compared to what we’re likely to hear for the rest of the week (and probably already had heard too: I skipped the HRC, Albot, and Jimmy Carter speeches). I like seeing people do what they’re good at, and there’s nobody better at giving cornball political tub-thumpers like ole Bill.

  8. Continuing my thinking, if you can call it that, I thought the attack on China and Japan holding our debt, which I have no idea whether true or relevant (probably neither), was the defining moment of the speech. Classic Clinton triangulation: having your multilateralism and eating it too. Xenophobia is too much fun to leave to the GOP know-nothings.

  9. I thought it was a pretty good speech from a very charismatic politician. However, the following passage made my skin crawl:

    “With gang violence rising, and with all of us looking for terrorists in our midst and hoping they’re not too well armed or too dangerous, the president and the Congress are about to allow the 10- year-old ban on deadly assault weapons to lapse.

    Now, they believe it’s the right thing to do. But our policy was to put more police on the street and to take assault weapons off the street. And it gave you eight years of declining crime and eight years of declining violence. Their policy is the reverse. They’re taking police off the streets while they put assault weapons back on the street.”

    Yeah, arbitrary Brady-bunch laws are going to keep a single firearm out of the hands of a terrorist. The message I get here is “disarm private citizens, and hire more brown-shirts”.

  10. I couldn’t figure out the Carter thing, either. It isn’t as though he is an oratory heavy weight, and his foreign policy credentials are, er, questionable.

    If they come out of this thing beating the gun control drum, they will give me a reason to vote against them rather than the sitting on my butt and being angry at my lack of a limited government choice.

  11. Two things I keep waiting for (though, as I mentioned in an earlier thread, I don’t expect to hear them):

    1) HOW are you going to create hundreds of thousands of ‘good’ jobs?

    2) Okay, what is the magic word that makes allies without the resolve to fight suddenly willing to fight? We didn’t get a hell of a lot of help in Afghanistan even. One way to make allies happy is to do whatever they want. What specifically would you have said other than “I capitulate” ?

  12. [Clinton’s] foreign policy credentials are, er, questionable.

    Based on what measure do you make such a bizarre statement? He’s surely did a much better job than Idiot Boy has done: i.e., peace, strong alliances, real attempts to solve intractable civil wars (e.g., Northern Ireland) no terrorist attacks on the United States, no war-without-end-in-the-middle-of-the-desert.

    Knee-jerk assertions that Republicans know what to do in foreign policy are so yesterday.

  13. Eponymous: The only TV analysis I heard was the immediate post-speech discussion on Fox, where the commentators seemed to appreciate Clinton’s speechifying skills but were more interested in discussing whether the address was “liberal.” If the folks on other channels were talking about Clinton’s clever rhetorical strategy, power to them.

    MJ: I’m not sure I’ve ever appreciated the substance of a speech by a current or former president. Style is all we’ve got.

  14. John Q:

    Er, if you take a peek at that post, I was referring to Carter. Do you want to lecture me on his great foreign policy record?

  15. John Q:
    Er, if you take a peek at that post, I was referring to Carter. Do you want to lecture me on his great foreign policy record?

    Um, ahem, I think I had something caught in my throat. Jason, please forgive my above-posted snark.

  16. Based on what measure do you make such a bizarre statement? He’s surely did a much better job than Idiot Boy has done: i.e., peace, strong alliances, real attempts to solve intractable civil wars (e.g., Northern Ireland) no terrorist attacks on the United States, no war-without-end-in-the-middle-of-the-desert.

    WTC in ’93, African embassy bombings, Khobar Towers…

  17. WTC in ’93, African embassy bombings, Khobar Towers…

    Now, be careful. Don’t go where you don’t really want to go. The Beirut bombing happened on Reagan’s “watch,” Somalia was Bush I’s adventure, and Osama rose to power during both of their presidencies. Clinton tried to kill Osama. Bush Jr., who was the United States Commander in Chief on 9/11/01, ignored Osama bin Laden for 9 months. That, my friend, is not refutable.

  18. I wouldn’t be so quick to back off, John Q. Your comments are just as appropraite to Carter as they are to Clinton. Carter didn’t drag the US into any foolhardy wars. The Camp David accord was no small thing. His big failing from what I recall was that the Iran hostage rescue operation was botched. The US and its British and Allawi-government allies don’t seem to have had too much success at liberating hostages lately, and that’s with a couple hundred thousand troops and police on the goround.

    Carter didn’t end the Cold War, but did Reagan? Really?

  19. Alot of fingers can be pointed at all the presidents. Basically our intelligence sucked and the State Dept. has been inept for ages. Both the Dems and the Reps. have had their agendas and didn’t want to ruffles particular feathers. Unfortunately politics has gotten in the way of concern for the safety of this country. All hands have dirt on them.

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