Bill Clinton Shines as Presidential Gender-bender at Democratic Convention

If his wife is elected, will he be First Man? First Gentleman? First Dude? Or will the couple be known as President and President Clinton?

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks during the second night at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 26, 2016.
Mark Kauzlarich, Reuters

The TV cameras recording the nomination of Hillary Clinton as Democratic candidate for U.S. president in Philadelphia on Tuesday focused more on the exhilarated expressions of female delegates and less on the indifferent or ill at ease faces of the men. It’s not that the males weren’t aware of the momentous event transpiring before them, but they have known for a while that a woman was about to be nominated for the first time in history as a presidential candidate for one of the two big parties, and have already moved on. For the women, the experience was more tribal, more personal and thus much more exciting. The history in the making reverberated in their ears at full volume.

The gender gap was also noticeable at the grand finale of the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, which was otherwise run with the same professionalism and dynamism as the first. An overly ambitious director screened portraits of the 43 men who have served as American presidents and then broke a massive glass through which a giant face of Clinton peered out by video from New York. It was supposed to symbolize the shattering glass ceiling, of course, and Clinton then stated the obvious by congratulating women for having broken it.

Role reversals and gender stereotypes also featured prominently in Bill Clinton’s keynote address, which somehow managed not be overshadowed by Michelle Obama’s rhetorical masterpiece the night before. Clinton successfully fulfilled the traditional role of candidates’ wives who extol their husband’s virtues before the convention. And he defied skeptics who had expected him to focus mainly on himself or who were doubtful whether he could match his memorable speech at the 2012 convention in which his “explainer in chief” persona made Barack Obama’s economic policies and Affordable Care Act accessible to all, thus reversing the negative vibes that had been plaguing him at that point. In both cases, Clinton outdid expectations.

He recounted his stubborn courtship of Hillary, repeatedly using the word “girl” to describe her, thus angering MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and possibly others, but throughout the story of his persistent proposals of marriage, Clinton interspersed details of the time and effort that his future wife was already investing in helping the needy, especially children, from the very beginning. He started out with uncharacteristic hesitation, and the audience at home must have found his shaking hands disconcerting, but then Clinton seemed to gain in confidence as time went by, hitting his oratorical stride and enthralling the audience in the Southern Baptist preacher style that he has perfected since his first days in politics. If people were peering at their watches at the start of his speech and wondering when it will all be over, by its end they were listening to Clinton rapturously and willing to cheer him on till dawn.

Clinton was the main protagonist in the second day’s main act, which was meant to launch an emergency campaign to resuscitate his wife image, which has been battered and buried under the mountains of mud hurled at her by Donald Trump and the GOP. He recounted her long years in public life, her work on behalf of first responders as a Senator from New York in the years following the 9/11 terror attacks and as Obama’s secretary of state. Clinton praised her efforts to tighten sanctions against Iran in the years before the signing of the nuclear accord with Tehran as well as her pivotal role in securing a cease fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza after Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. Israel received notable positive mention from Clinton in connection with the HIPPY program aimed at educating parents from underprivileged families to tutor their children which Clinton imported from Israel in the 1980’s. Concurrently, at a timing that could be interpreted as symbolic, frustrated Bernie supporters were burning an Israeli flag just outside the Wells Fargo Center where the convention is being held.

The burning, which can doubtlessly be used by Trump to try and sway Jews in his favor, was part of a series of protest acts by frustrated fans of Bernie Sanders. In their eyes, Sanders' decision to call for confirmation of Clinton’s candidacy at the very end of the roll call of states and their delegates was nothing less than a betrayal of the very revolution that Sanders had espoused. In a move that earned their contempt along with the overwhelming admiration of everyone else, Sanders agreed to this final gesture of unity, bringing the house down and earning him the everlasting gratitude of Clinton’s supporters. The more fanatic among his fans, who in some ways resemble members in a cult, vented their wrath in demonstrations throughout the day inside the Wells Fargo compound and around it.

They could still cause a lot of trouble, of course, but to all intents and purposes, Sanders’ stand as well as the clear cut majority with which Clinton clinched the nomination brought the often bitter and contentious confrontation between the two to an end. The expectation that the scandal generated by the Wikileaks publication of a trove of Democratic National Committee’s emails would lead to general pandemonium and discord was quickly dispelled and possibly achieved the opposite effect: the party seemed more united on Tuesday than anyone could have expected. Other than Donald Trump, who tweeted without any regard for reality that the GOP convention had been more interesting than the Democratic confab, most observers agreed that the Philadelphia confab has so far been well scripted, meticulously planned and creatively executed. And that it was far more riveting than its GOP rival. 

Clinton presented his wife as a potential changer-in-chief while trying to create a party consensus that supports her. That mission will be continued today by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and by Michelle Obama’s husband, Barack, who will address the convention on Wednesday night. Even more than his predecessor Clinton, Obama will face a complex and multilayered challenge: He must pass the mantle of party leadership to Hillary Clinton while speaking on behalf of his own legacy for posterity. He needs to be careful not to seem to be exerting himself to outdo his wife’s universally acclaimed speech on Monday, but not to fall too far from her standards either.

Another matter that will soon occupy commentators — on the assumption that the convention will continue successfully, that the email scandal will recede into the background and that Clinton will start to recuperate in the polls — is how will things work, exactly, with Bill Clinton once again in the White House. He will be the first ex-president to return as a presidential spouse, of course, in addition to being the first man serving as the first lady.

What will he be called? The first man seems way too macho, the first gentleman far too aristocratic and anachronistic, the first spouse awkward and the first dude, though possibly the most apt, also unbecoming. Perhaps he’ll just be addressed as President, as he is today, at the same time that she will be addressed as President, as her title will be if she wins elections. Then it will be President & President Clinton, which is no less problematic, perhaps even more.