Former President Bill Clinton’s 49-minute speech Wednesday at the Democratic National Convention included more than 2,000 words that were not in his prepared remarks—a measure of the extent to which his rousing address was ad libbed.
Many of the changes were small insertions that made his delivery more conversational. But others were lengthy passages that Clinton apparently authored in the moment, from his praise of Republicans as “honorable people” to jokes about George Washington’s wooden teeth and Paul Ryan’s “brass.”
Some of Clinton’s most impassioned remarks were unscripted. When he credited President Obama with setting the country on the right economic course and assured voters that “if you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it,” Clinton added a personal message.
“Folks, whether the American people believe what I just said or not may be the whole election,” Clinton said. “I just want you to know that I believe it. With all my heart, I believe it.”
In another improvisation, Clinton declared “this is personal to me” as he sought to debunk the Romney campaign’s charge that Obama has removed the work requirement embedded in the 1996 welfare reform law—a law Clinton signed.
“Now, did I make myself clear? The requirement was for more work, not less,” Clinton said, going off script to defend Obama’s decision to grant waivers to states that want to experiment with new strategies to return 20 percent more welfare recipients to the workforce. “So this is personal to me. We moved millions of people off welfare. It was one of the reasons that, in the eight years I was president, we had 100 times as many people move out of poverty into the middle class than happened under the previous 12 years—100 times as many. It’s a big deal.”
He also embellished a section of the speech in which he praised Obama for appointing Clinton’s wife, Hillary—Obama’s chief rival in the Democratic primary—as secretary of state.
“I’m grateful for the relationship of respect and partnership she and the president have enjoyed and the signal that sends to the rest of the world, that democracy does not have to be a blood sport,” Clinton said. “It can be an honorable enterprise that advances the public interest.”
Talking about the GOP, Clinton made up compliments and jabs on the spot. While alleging that the Republican Party has shifted to the right, Clinton added examples.
“Just in the last couple of elections, they defeated two distinguished Republican senators because they dared to cooperate with Democrats on issues important to the future of the country, even national security,” Clinton said, making apparent references to Dick Lugar of Indiana and Bob Bennett of Utah. “They beat a Republican congressman with almost 100 percent voting record on every conservative score because he said he realized he did not have to hate the president to disagree with him,” Clinton added, referring to Bob Inglis of South Carolina. “Boy, that was a non-starter, and they threw him out.”
Clinton teased Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, for blasting Obama’s $716 billion Medicare spending cut, noting that Ryan included the same cut in his own budget proposal, which the House passed in the spring.
“You got to give one thing: It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did,” Clinton said in an off-the-cuff wisecrack.
But when he appeared to sense that the crowd was too high on anti-conservatism—laughing when he said that Republicans did a good job of arguing against Obama’s re-election during their convention last week—Clinton threw extra, unplanned plaudits across the aisle.
“They looked good; they sounded good,” Clinton said. “They convinced me that they all love their families and their children, and we’re grateful they’ve been born in America, and all—really, I’m not being—they did. And this is important. They convinced me they were honorable people who believe what they’ve said, and they’re going to keep every commitment they’ve made. We’ve just got to make sure the American people know what those commitments are.”
At the end of his speech—which totaled 5,432 words, after being planned at 3,222—Clinton expressed optimism about America’s future with an impromptu history lesson.
“People have predicted our demise ever since George Washington was criticized for being a mediocre surveyor with a bad set of wooden, false teeth,” Clinton said. “And so far every single person that’s bet against America has lost money because we always come back.”Callum Borchers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.