The best speech Hillary Clinton has ever delivered

REUTERS/Mike Segar
Hillary Clinton accepting the nomination on Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Apparently I am out of step with many observers. Perhaps I suffer from Trump Derangement Syndrome. But I thought Hillary Clinton gave an effective acceptance speech last night in Philly, the best speech I ever remember hearing from Clinton, who is not known as a gifted orator.

How’s that for damning with faint praise?

On the PBS panel covering the convention, David Brooks called it a “below average speech,” even though he rated the overall convention as “astoundingly successful.” But as to Clinton’s big finale, he said: “I don’t know why she can’t project more humanity. Maybe a lifetime in politics does that to you.”

Brooks’ regular panel partner Mark Shields, who is the designated liberal of the duo and might be expected to like it better, said the speech had “no memorable lines; nothing to march to; no Demosthenes moment.” But he felt that, whenever the air seemed to go out of the speech, she would turn the subject back to the Donald Trump, the gift that keeps on giving, and that would revive the audience. “She’s not being compared to the Almighty,” Shields noted. “She’s being compared to the alternative.” (That’s a memorable line. But I gather it was an old saw.)

There was wider agreement that the Democrats had produced a strong four-day infomercial, much better than the Republican effort last week. There were several emotional high spots in the hour leading into the Clinton speech.

Meanwhile, back to the show: The run-up to the Clinton speech seemed quite dramatic, times two. The planners assembled a list of presentations designed to exploit weaknesses in the Republicans’ – more specifically Mr. Trump’s – armor.

The immigrant parents of a Muslim soldier who died fighting in Iraq took the stage a couple of slots before Clinton. The heroic death of Capt. Humayun Khan was described. With his wife at his side, the bereaved father, Khizr Khan, who emigrated legally from the United Arab Emirates and is now a citizen, spoke with an accent and a facial expression that combined grief with rage:

If it was up to Donald Trump, [Capt. Khan] never would have been in America. Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims,” Khizr Khan said. He disrespects other minorities, women, judges, even his own party leadership. He vows to build walls and ban us from this country.”

Then Capt. Khan’s father went right after Trump, addressing him directly: “You sacrificed nothing and no one.” (Trump used a series of deferments to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. When he was no longer eligible for student deferments, he failed a physical under slightly mysterious circumstances.)

It was powerful, and represented a bit of table-turner, since Republicans often dominate the flag-and-country-and-military element of a political campaign.

Khan also produced a pocket-sized U.S. Constitution from his pocket, held it up on camera and, speaking directly to the Republican nominee, said:

Donald Trump, you’re asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. 

I’ll be interested to see if Trump or his campaign makes any reply to this. As of this writing, he had not done so.

Khizr Khan speaking Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention

Then a retired four-star Marine general named John Allen, backed by several other veterans of different ages, races and genders, took the stage. Until 2015, Allen led a group called The Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. Allen all-but shouted his eight-minute statement, which included this:

America will defeat ISIS. America will honor our treaty obligations. [Presumably a reference to some of Trump’s recent statements about possibly reneging on obligations to defend certain NATO allies.] We will lead and strengthen NATO… We stand before you tonight to endorse Hillary Clinton for the United States of America… We believe in her vision of America as a just and strong leader against the forces of chaos, and the forces of darkness… [Bernie Sanders backers, tried to interrupt, chanting “No More War,” but were drowned out by Clinton backers chanting “U.S.A., U.S.A.,” thereby stealing another common page from recent Republican conventions.]

With her as our commander-in-chief, our international relations will not be reduced to a business transaction, [also a response to some Trump comments] … Our armed forces will not become an instrument of torture. And they will not be engaged in murder or carry out other illegal activities. [These also apparently refer to some Trumpian remarks about using water-boarding and worse interrogation tactics, and about killing the families of ISIL members.]

You can watch that portion of the program here.

A little more from the speech by the headliner, Clinton, who thus became not only the first of her gender ever to win a major party presidential nomination but also the first to give a speech accepting such a nomination. Perhaps that’s slicing the first-ever baloney a little thin.

After a touching introduction by her daughter Chelsea, Clinton took the stage and held it for 55 minutes. She covered dozens of topics, alternating between reminiscences of her childhood, her career, the policies she would endeavor to pursue if elected, and especially attacks on Trump.

As Shields suggested, the Trump attacks were the most entertaining. With such divisive leadership as Trump represents, she wondered, could America live up to its motto – e pluribus unum — from many, one. She accused him of fomenting fear, and reminded the audience of the FDR line: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Instead of building a wall, she said, we should build a path to citizenship.

She especially ripped Trump for saying, in his own acceptance speech a week earlier, “I alone can fix it.” Clinton’s takedown went like this:

“Don’t believe anyone who says: ‘I alone can fix it.’ Those were actually Donald Trump’s words in Cleveland. And they should set off alarm bells for all of us.

“Really? ‘I alone can fix it?’ Isn’t he forgetting troops on the front lines. Police officers and fire fighters who run toward danger. Doctors and nurses who care for us. Teachers who change lives. Entrepreneurs who see possibilities in every problem. Mothers who lost children to violence and are building a movement to keep other kids safe. He’s forgetting every last one of us. Americans don’t say: ‘I alone can fix it.’ We say: ‘We’ll fix it together.’”

She noted one of the elephants in the room, something that makes it harder to convince the country to leave the White House under Democratic control, which is that so much of the country is convinced that past eight years have been filled with national decline and failure. She replied:

“I don’t think President Obama and Vice President Biden get the credit they deserve for saving us from the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes.

“Our economy is so much stronger than when they took office. Nearly 15 million new private-sector jobs. Twenty million more Americans with health insurance. And an auto industry that just had its best year ever. That’s real progress.”

But, of course, she daren’t argue that the progress that’s been made is enough, and she assured listeners that she has ideas and policies that will continue the progress and make sure prosperity is more widely shared. The policy ideas she mentioned included:

If you believe that companies should share profits with their workers, not pad executive bonuses, join us.

If you believe the minimum wage should be a living wage and no one working full time should have to raise their children in poverty, join us.

If you believe that every man, woman, and child in America has the right to affordable health care … join us.

If you believe that we should say “no” to unfair trade deals, that we should stand up to China, that we should support our steelworkers and autoworkers and homegrown manufacturers, join us.

If you believe we should expand Social Security and protect a woman’s right to make her own heath care decisions, join us.

And yes, if you believe that your working mother, wife, sister, or daughter deserves equal pay … join us.

Let’s make sure this economy works for everyone, not just those at the top.

We’ll see in the polls a few days from now whether the convention moved the needle much, but polls in August still don’t mean much, especially when they are almost certain to show a race that is still essentially tied.

For the sake of laying down a marker that we can compare against in about a week, the latest Real Clear Politics average of recent head-to-head Trump v. Clinton polls shows Trump ahead by 0.9 percentage points. Given that whatever bump the Democratic ticket might get out of its convention is not fully reflected in those polls, it would be reasonable to assume that if, by the end of next week, Clinton has an average lead of a couple of points, we can conclude that the combination of the two conventions didn’t change the race much.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/29/2016 - 09:52 am.

    Her problem is

    that her speeches read better than they sound.
    Of course, she can’t escape the comparison with the two best political orators since FDR.
    The good news is that they’re speaking for her.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 07/29/2016 - 11:31 am.

      Hear! Hear!

      I caught the finale. She’s not an orator. But, at least she had substance, right?

      • Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/29/2016 - 12:51 pm.

        Speech training

        This is not a misogynistic complaint about her voice, but a simple observation: I wonder if she has ever had any actual speech training?

        My criticism of her speaking style is that she has very little inflection/intonation in her voice – no “ups” and no “downs”. It’s pretty much all said on the same note, and speakers with little inflection can have a hard time holding a listener’s attention. So when she engages the other very commonly-used campaigner’s oratorical style – lots of loud, forceful speaking – that, then, becomes even more noticeable due to the lack of inflection.

        I know she’s going to be very busy with her campaign. But I seriously think some time spent with a vocal coach would reap some real benefits for her.

        Much as we might hate to admit it, the American public is influenced by this sort of thing. So might as well bow to the inevitable and try to improve the speaking style so that it matches the speaking substance.

  2. Submitted by Rod Loper on 07/29/2016 - 10:30 am.

    Remarkable messaging here

    One can’t help but wonder why the DNC didn’t message this well during the interim elections?

  3. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 07/29/2016 - 12:54 pm.

    Trump’s only issue is hate

    I don’t see how anyone can vote for Trump after the last two weeks. All of his half-baked, over-the-hill celebrities and minor league Republican officials versus the awesome lineup at the DNC shows just how poor the Republican offering is. Capt. Khan’s father was more emotionally true than all the Republican speakers put together. Maybe next time Trump can up his game and get Fonzie instead of Chachi.

    The only underlying theme to Trump’s effort is hate, hate for Muslims, hate for Mexicans, Hate for all non white and non male people. He’s got the racist vote locked up and the only real Republicans on his side are those like Christie and Ryan and Sessions who hope to gain something by supporting him and ignoring the fact that he is evil. Tell Mr. Carson I’m smelling some brimstone over at the Trump Tower.

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 07/29/2016 - 01:21 pm.

    Depends on the scale

    Graded against herself, it was an exellent speech. Graded aginst BHO or Clinton 42, it was mediocre. Against Bush 43, pretty good.

    Overall, I agree with the news hour commentator that noted it was a little slow in the middle & she was losing the audience. But she recovered & finished strong.

  5. Submitted by Jim Million on 07/31/2016 - 02:24 pm.

    Proper Public Speaking Training Required

    Sure, it’s likely too late to change her inbred vocal techniques and delivery style, but not too late to polish certain aspects to promote more comfortable (and accepted) listening.

    The fundamental problem with speaking from manuscript (usually for official record files), is at least two-fold: the formal prose of the author is devised more for archive readers than for immediate listeners; the tendency for the manuscript speaker is to seem too structured and less personable.

    HRC really is not a very good public speaker. I’m sure she communicates very effectively in more intimate settings, especially among friendly listeners. In public address, she regularly punctuates too many phrases, thereby diminishing effect. To me, she has most always, at least in recent years, clearly adopted the style of a 19th Century stump speaker: loud, often strident and with little nuance. She needs to trust a very good coach who could quickly improve her effectiveness, given how bright she is reported to be. The failure there would likely come from ego defenses typical of established public personalities.

    Simple changes she could make: Vary both intensity and volume of many phrases to let us know what is really important to remember. She has a tendency to shout too much. She also tends to punctuate and elongate syllables of too many words, creating a harsh pattern of undue importance. Most importantly, she needs to speak from her diaphragm and not her throat, which has become raw and raspy over the years. In short, she does not know how to use modern microphones and amplifiers to their purpose. She need not shout to be heard. She may speak in calm tones without losing the audience. In fact, most audiences appreciate that.

    Her faithful do not care much about the style, I suspect. They will be with her no matter. If she is to win over those she needs, then better tone, technique and voice quality likely will do that. Otherwise, the “noise” created by her sonics will block or diminish her message and its meaning to those who just want this stuff explained. Talk to them, HRC, don’t orate, pontificate or exscoriate. Just explain your views to them in properly effective parental terms. Modulate both your rhetoric and delivery.

    [By the way, Donald Trump needs similar lessons; although, he seems calmer and more personal before many groups now. He just cannot control his vocal shifts very well…yet, at least. Both candidates are a pain in my ear; but, I was trained long ago to “listen through the noise.” ]

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 08/01/2016 - 10:08 pm.

    I have not been

    a supporter of Sen Clinton. But in regard to the speech I was way more impressed then I even considered possible. I am still reflecting the reasons or reason that this is the case. Is it the outrageousness of the opposition candidte ? Is it the fact the Clinton is the first major party candidate to be the party nominee ? Is it the fact that my opposition and suspicion of her history is melting ? Is it the hypocrisy of the endorsing GOP leadership in not standing up to a pretending dictator ? Is it my becoming more pragmatic about the future potential ? Is it concern about down ticket elections ? In the end i think it was two things in the speech and they are her early and forceful recognition of Senator Sanders affect on the electorate and exactly what was laid out at the end of this article the litany of “join us …” language. As a voter I want to be a part of something good for the many. All of those things she enumerated are important to me and what I think this country should be. I do not need someone to entertain me. I need someone to spearhead policies for the common good. I hope she will show continued leadership. That’s all I got !

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 08/02/2016 - 01:38 pm.

      Very Valid Summary

      One might always attack promises with respect to production. Convention speeches are very good outlines of candidate thesis.

      I applaud you for “listening through the noise,” as previously noted. Few audience members successfully do that these days. Perhaps you read the manuscript, rather than listened to the delivery. If so, you got the clean message. Hope your expectations of product are met by promises fulfilled.

Leave a Reply