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A Brief History of Bill Clinton Shine-Blocking People

On the eve of his DNC speech, a (mostly terrifying) look back

Getty Images
Getty Images

Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Bill Clinton will give, if not the speech of his life, then definitely the Bill Clinton speech of Hillary Clinton’s life. The dread is palpable. Donald Trump has surged in the polls on the merits of what was essentially the G N’ R Lies of political conventions. Russian hackers are openly clowning the Democratic party. Drake’s Views is once again the no. 1 album in America. The unofficial Hillary campaign slogan has always been I Swear I Won’t Fuck This Up, and now would be a lovely time to commence with the not fucking this up. A brilliant, rousing, clarifying Bill Clinton speech would be a great start. A terrible, self-aggrandizing, thoroughly derailing Bill Clinton speech would be the end of days. He is fully capable of either.

Such is the man’s singular, maddening genius — he can shine so brightly but shine-block so ruthlessly. Bill’s actual presidency is hard to recall or even imagine now, a sepia-toned halcyon fantasyland in comparison to everything that came after. (The Onion said it best.) But his career since is a charmless ballet of spotlight-hogging and momentum-deadening stumbles: The “down” part of his up-and-down relationship with Barack Obama, for example, boils down to this photograph. He says the wrong thing, advances the wrong narrative, generates the wrong headline. He was often great and occasionally transcendent as the Guy, but he’s actively harmful as the Guy Behind the Guy, and his de facto role as the Guy Behind His Wife has, for obvious reasons, an especially frightening downside. The worst-case scenario in Philly tonight is that he pulls out a saxophone, or a copy of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, or his dick.

Shine-blocking is not an explicitly political term, no, but it describes his tendencies well enough, and also gives us a reason to revisit one of Big Boi’s (and Gucci Mane’s!) finest hours:

Here, then, are Bill’s least-finest hours as a public speaker ostensibly supporting but in fact openly sabotaging someone else, usually his long-suffering wife. May he not add to this lowlight reel — not ever, but especially not right now.

The Dukakis Filibuster

Venue: 1988 DNC Speech in Atlanta

Ostensible Objective: Endorse Michael Dukakis for president

Actual Result: Lulling most of Michael Dukakis’s potential voters to a deep sleep from which they did not, apparently, awaken

Let’s ignore the first 32 minutes and nine seconds of this bad boy, and focus on the total crowd elation that results when he finally says the words, “In closing.” Just brutal. Look at his face! It’s like when the opening band says, “We’ve got one more song!” and everyone cheers sarcastically. This was an immediate disaster — Tom Brokaw was too embarrassed on Bill’s behalf to even talk to him afterward — so visceral that your man had to go on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show for damage control, and the second Bill started talking, Johnny pulled out an hourglass and dropped it on his desk. This speech was a potential career-killer; that he got elected president four years later anyway says it all.

The Grim Fairy Tale

Venue: January 2008 town hall at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire

Ostensible Objective: Sensibly attack Obama’s record on the Iraq War

Actual Result: Dismissing the media perception of that record as “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

“One Big Fairy Tale” is not the pull quote takeaway you want, in this instance, nor do you want to deliver it in a hoarse, weary, furious squeak that allows the The New York Times to describe your wife’s increasingly doomed ’08 campaign as “ranging from anger to near despair to exhaustion.” He always took Obama way more personally than Hillary did, and that was always bad, very bad. Bill soon found himself doing damage control on Al Sharpton’s radio show, which is never a good sign, clarifying that no, he didn’t mean Barack’s whole campaign was a fairy tale, just that one part, etc., bleagh. This would soon get way worse.

The Jesse Jackson Disaster

Venue: Late-January 2008 press scrum in South Carolina, the night of the state’s Democratic primary

Ostensible Objective: “Whatever you do, don’t compare Obama to Jesse Jackson”

Actual Result: Directly compared Obama to Jesse Jackson

Obama took the state in a landslide; having your husband wryly point out another black guy who won S.C. twice but spun out thereafter is not a good look. James Clyburn, esteemed congressman from South Carolina, had one word of advice: “Chill.” But “Hillary Clinton apologizes to African Americans for Bill’s comments” was already a headline, and soon enough, an epitaph.

Bill and Bain Capital, Sitting in a Tree

Venue: Piers Morgan’s CNN show in May 2012

Ostensible Objective: Lead by example on how to address Mitt Romney’s business record

Actual Result: Referring to that business record as “sterling”

Fast-forward to Obama–Romney in 2012, which featured a slick Republican candidate who once fronted Bain Capital, a gigantic and much-derided corporate monolith whose name literally recalls the villain in that year’s Batman movie. And there’s Bill, all but praising Romney and undermining Obama’s central line of fiercely anti-Bain attacks, forcing your man to awkwardly and long-windedly walk it back later on PBS per the video above. He really oughta carry Johnny Carson’s hourglass with him everywhere.

The Latrell Sprewell Financial Plan

Venue: Chatting with NBC News, in Africa, in May 2015

Ostensible Objective: Defend he and his wife’s oft-bonkers and unsightly speaking fees

Actual Result: Uttering the immortal line “I gotta pay our bills”

You’ll recall that in 2004, NBA luminary Latrell Sprewell, then making roughly $15 million a year, explained his ongoing salary-based squabbles with the Minnesota Timberwolves by saying that “I’ve got a family to feed.” Hot take–slinging sportswriters were delighted. As were anti-Clinton forces when Bill, in his first official interview after Hillary’s official 2016 campaign announcement, dropped “I gotta pay our bills” as justification for cashing, for example, a $500,000 speaking-fee check from a Russian bank. “People like to hear me speak,” he added. This is true, though he ought to ruminate on who exactly, and why.

Obama’s “Awful” Legacy

Venue: March 2016 campaign stop in Spokane, Washington

Ostensible Objective: ???????

Actual Result: !!!!!!!!!!

The first thing that strikes you is the wheezy hoarseness, which we’ve come to regard as a Bad Sign, indeed; the second thing that strikes you is when, in the course of describing his prescription for healing our country’s racial divides, he casually mentions “the awful legacy of the past eight years.” And, presto: Here comes the headline “Clinton campaign mops up Bill’s ‘awful’ gaffe.” There is probably a dedicated Hilary staffer whose sole job is to throw chairs around the room when stuff like this happens.

The War on His War on Crime

Venue: April 2016 campaign stop in Philadelphia

Ostensible Objective: Defend his 1994 crime bill, which was a huge goddamn drag

Actual Result: Nearly going All Lives Matter on some protesters

Well, he ain’t hoarse, but he’s super pissed, and he went the bad kind of viral. Seriously, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act is a disaster in retrospect, slaking the country’s thirst for mass incarceration and long prompting panicked defenses from both Clintons that only made the problem worse (See: Hillary’s 1996 reference to “superpredators”). It all looks particularly awful in Black Lives Matter–dominated 2016, and for some is a valid reason for the campaign to give Bill the boot entirely. But the campaign didn’t, or at least hasn’t yet, and here we are, back in Philadelphia, holding our breath, hoping the man of the hour holds his tongue.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that a Clinton campaign stop in Philadelphia was in August 2016; it was in April 2016.