Getting personal

He lost his father to a car accident and his mother retrained as a nurse so that she could earn a living and support her family. It was a narrative that told voters who he was and why they should trust him to lead the country.

Scenes from his childhood were woven into a video where he explained how much value his family had placed on education and how that helped him work his way up to where he was today. It showed why he cared so much about giving every child an opportunity to succeed.

Who am I talking about? Bill Clinton of course — The Man From Hope. The campaign team used the candidate’s personal history as a sales pitch. His opponents oscillated between envy and contempt. But however they reacted, campaign professionals were impressed. For example, Peggy Noonan — a former Reagan speech writerreacted this way:

The Film. The most compelling rhetoric of the last convention night was in the Bill Clinton bio. It was wonderful—stirring, soft focused and emotional—and alarming. Clinton’s focus groups show people think he was born rich; in the film, Hillary just happens to mention that when she talks to people they tell her the most amazing thing, they think Bill was born rich!

And can we get this one straight? Reporters and the Clinton organization keep saying he was “born in poverty,” but from all the pictures and the facts that have been revealed, Clinton appears to have been born middle or lower-middle class—the meaning of these phrases keeps changing—like just about everybody else in those days. Grandma and grandpa, with whom he lived as a child, had a cook/housekeeper. Grandpa had a store. Billy had a cowboy hat. This is poverty only by the standards of—forgive me—Northern boomer media snots who see Southerners as . . . naturally impoverished. (It was probably the outhouse that began the hagiography.)

I bet half the parents in America suspect that the real nature of Clinton’s deprivation wasn’t financial but emotional. Grandma and grandpa worked, mom was at school, his father was dead. But politicians can’t say, “I was born in loneliness . . .” to show they know something about pain.

Speaking of which: it is good that those who seek to lead us tell us of their lives, and the events that shaped them. But—there was a lot of my dad died, my son almost died, dad was a drinker, my sister died.

Why do modern Democrats have to declare to each other that they have suffered, that they are victims? In group therapy this is known as saying hello, but—this is government. The real pain in a person’s life is interior; the anguish unveiled in these speeches seems a surrogate for genuine pain, and the device seems not revelatory but deceptive.

Of course once Clinton invited the public into his private life they never left… but that’s another story.

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Kieran Bennett
17 years ago

An emphasis on the personal rebounded on Clinton, and now an emphasis on “accountability” is rebounding on Howard. Will “unAustralian” come home to roost?

17 years ago

A good take.

Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

That’s quite a video.

17 years ago

Y’know I think the emotion that the Clinton video appeals to, at the beginning at least, is nostaligia. That is certainly what sets the tone for the rest of the pitch.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
17 years ago

I agree Rex. For example, there’s that comment about how people didn’t need to lock their doors back in the old days linked in with the old black and white film.

I think the past is a promise and the pitch is about how Clinton is going to help a lost nation make good on it. The Republicans have taken America in a selfish, winner-take-all direction. Clinton wants to restore it to the kind of values he learned from his grandparents.

America is not heading in the right direction.

Emotion is the key. The values come from the heart — you don’t need to go to college to feel what’s right. Clinton wants to say that what’s in his heart is what’s in yours.

What disturbs me about the bio is the way it uses his family to tell the story — even his daughter. It’s just so personal.


[…] cut their candidate some slack. And maybe some voters don’t mind if the candidate themselves starts to resemble a fictional character. This entry was posted on Sunday, June 6th, 2010 at 6:13 PM and filed under Uncategorized. […]