Describing the first time he saw his wife, Bill Clinton said, "She exuded this sense of strength and self-possession that I found magnetic"
Former President Bill Clinton could make history this November as the first first gentleman. But his speech making the case for his wife at the Democratic convention Tuesday night was a historic moment in and of itself.
As the Chicago Tribune put it, he was “a former president who wants to be first man extolling the virtues of a former first lady who wants to be president.”
“Only the Clintons.”
And the former president was in true Clinton form on the second night of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, as he took the stage in support of wife Hillary Clinton following her official nomination.
His was not so much a speech as a quintessentially Clinton-esque story hour – starting with his opening line: “In the Spring of 1971, I met a girl.”
He captivated the audience with a colorful, “awwww-inducing” yarn of the moment he first laid eyes on Hillary Rodham Clinton in a classroom at Yale Law School. He recalled her “big blonde hair, BIG glasses, wore no makeup and she exuded this sense of strength and self-possession that I found magnetic.”
“I followed her out, intending to introduce myself. I got close enough to touch her back – but I couldn’t. Somehow, I knew this wouldn’t be just another tap on the shoulder and I might be starting something I couldn’t stop.”
When he finally got up the nerve to ask her out, it was for a walk on campus. “We’ve been walking and talking and laughing together ever since,” he said. “We’ve done it in good times and bad, through joy and heartbreak.”
But the walk around campus was only the beginning. It took Bill three tries to get Hillary to agree to marry him, he said. During his second proposal, he told her he “really wanted to marry her” – but advised her to decline his offer and pursue a career in politics instead. On his third attempt, he surprised her by buying a little red brick house she had once admired in Arkansas.
“We were married in that little house on October the 11th, 1975. I married my best friend. I was still in awe after more than four years of being around her, at how smart and strong and loving and caring she was, and I really hoped that her choosing me and rejecting my advice to pursue her own career was a decision she would never regret.”
In a campaign where Hillary’s character – her trustworthiness and personal warmth – have been problem issues for her in polls, the former president seized with gusto the mission to undo those impressions with anecdotes about her homey side. And every story carried an undercurrent of his wife’s work ethic and selflessness.
For all her early accomplishments as a lawyer and children’s advocate, Hillary’s priority was being a mom, Bill said. “She became, as she often said, our family’s designated worrier, born with an extra responsibility gene.” With a laugh he recalled that they rarely disagreed on how to raise their daughter, Chelsea Clinton – except for that one time he took a couple days off work to binge watch with Chelsea all six Police Academy movies back to back. “[Hillary] did believe that I had gone a little over the top.”
A campaign official tells PEOPLE that Hillary watched her husband’s address on TV from their home in Chappaqua, New York. Their daughter, Chelsea, was in the hall for her father’s speech, which he wrote himself. The former first daughter, seated next to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, cheered her father on along with the rest of the crowd. (With their grandfather speaking way past their bedtime, Chelsea’s children, Charlotte and Aidan, did not make an appearance.)
In his speech, the former president, thumping his hand on the lectern to emphasize every word, took issue with those in this campaign season who fault his wife – a former first lady, U.S. senator from New York, and secretary of state under President Obama – for being too long in government, an insider when outsiders are cool.
“Some people say, ‘Well, we need change. She’s been around a long time,’ ” Bill said in a mocking sing-song. He continued with a fist-pounding fierceness: “She sure has! And she’s sure been worth every single year she’s put into making people’s lives better!”
Bill’s address marked a huge role reversal for the husband and wife team. Exactly 20 years ago, at the 1996 Democratic National Convention, Hillary urged Americans to vote for her husband in her first ever prime-time speech, which focused on what remain two of her key issues: families and children.
“We are all part of one family – the American family – and each one of us has value. Each child who comes into this world should feel special.” Making that vision a reality, she continued, “takes a president who believes not only in the potential of his own child, but of all children; who believes not only in the strength of his own family, but of the American family. It takes Bill Clinton.”
Hillary will take the stage again on Thursday, the final night of the convention – this time as the official 2016 Democratic presidential nominee.