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Historians Praise Former President Bill Clinton’s Convention Address

August 27, 2008 at 10:25 PM EDT
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Former President Bill Clinton spoke emphatically in support of Senator Barack Obama Wednesday night at the Democratic Convention. Analysts and historians react to the speech.
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JIM LEHRER: Former President Bill Clinton, would you say that he was well-received, Mark, is an understatement?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Understatement, Jim. The crowd loved him. He had their hearts, and he had their attention, and he had their ears.

JIM LEHRER: And his message, David?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: It was a comprehensive, almost legal argument, like a closing argument of a trial, in support of Barack Obama. He covered almost everything, put it all together into one argument.

JIM LEHRER: And all of the speculation about, oh, will Bill Clinton, you know, hold something back, will he signal something else? Forget it, huh?

MARK SHIELDS: Forget it, Jim. And you’ll hear over and over again the formulation that Bill Clinton developed here tonight. Barack Obama knows that America cannot be strong abroad unless we are strong at home. People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than the example of our power.

DAVID BROOKS: Not sure Vladimir Putin will be impressed by the power of our example or Ahmadinejad, but it’s a nice formulation.

JIM LEHRER: I found — because we had talked about it earlier, I found it interesting the way he addressed directly the alleged weaknesses of Barack Obama and compared his own…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, a couple of months ago, his campaign or his wife’s campaign put out a 3 a.m. ad saying Barack Obama was too inexperienced. This was a complete rebuttal to that ad that they put out.

JIM LEHRER: Absolutely, yes. There, of course, is Hillary Clinton in the hall, waving her American flag.

Delegates rate speech "outstanding"

JIM LEHRER: Let's go now to Judy Woodruff, who's on the floor there among the -- the Clinton reaction, Judy?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim, I am here on the floor with the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, Representative Jim Clyburn of the state of South Carolina.

What did you think of the president's speech?

REP. JIM CLYBURN (D), South Carolina: A great speech, outstanding. As I said earlier today, I expect for Bill to be Bill. And he was Bill tonight. I really believe that he teed it up well for Barack Obama, and I think tomorrow night we'll -- he'll do what he has to do tomorrow night.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There were some differences between you and some others with President Clinton with some of the language he used during the tough primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the question of whether he injected race into the campaign at a couple of points. Is all forgiven on that front?

REP. JIM CLYBURN: Well, I never had a problem. I made it very clear. I admire and respect Bill Clinton. I think he was a great president. I was pleased to be in the Congress to help with that, so I never had a problem.

I do believe, though, that a lot of things that got said could have had more than one meaning. And it got carried in more than one way.

And so I still think that he is an outstanding person, and I have no animosity toward him at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much will his support -- how much difference will his support make in this general election campaign?

REP. JIM CLYBURN: I think it means a great amount of difference, especially to our base supporters out there. These people love and admire the Clintons. And they really needed to hear what they heard last night and what we've heard tonight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, thank you very much.

REP. JIM CLYBURN: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim, back to you.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, thank you, Judy.

Now let's get some perspective from our historian team. They are with Margaret Warner.

Bill Clinton's Legacy

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Jim.

I'm joined by author Michael Beschloss, and Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University, and Peniel Joseph, professor of history and African-American studies at Brandeis University.

So, team -- start with you, Richard -- what is Bill Clinton's legacy to this party and to the country?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Oh, gosh. Bill Clinton's legacy -- earlier we heard Walter Mondale, a very honorable, very decent spokesperson for a different kind of Democratic Party, a kind of a New Deal liberalism.

It was Bill Clinton who said the era of big government is over. It was Bill Clinton who in many ways anticipated Barack Obama by seeking a third way, almost a post-ideological presidency. And so welfare reform, and a balanced budget, and surpluses, things that people didn't associate with Democrats.

So he redefined the Democratic Party, certainly in economic terms, and to some degree, I would say, in foreign policy, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Redefined the Democratic Party?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Absolutely. It's really a paradoxical legacy.

On the one hand, Clinton is the first Democrat to have two terms since, really, Roosevelt. On the other, his third way or neoliberalism actually really transforms the party in a way that his critics say was really negative, because, on the one hand, he says he wants a leaner, not meaner government in 1992, and really tries to split the difference between old-school New Deal liberalism and the conservative austerity of the 1980s.

Now, that third way was progressive on some fronts, but on other fronts it left people wondering whether the Democratic Party really cared about working people, poor people, and minorities.

MARGARET WARNER: And how much has this -- well, first of all, do you agree with this assessment of his legacy, Michael? And how much of it has endured? I mean, do you see it in Barack Obama?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Yes, actually, I don't agree too much with some of what both Peniel and Richard said, as much as I love you both.

And the reason is that eight years of peace and prosperity, admirable, I think to historians, in the future. Legacy is what a president does that affects later generations.

Bill Clinton had to basically try to retard the movement of a Republican period. That period is ebbing right now. He also tried to make the Democratic Party as strong as the Republicans on military things. So both of those things are a little bit out of date.

This seems to be this year a Democratic time, a growing Democratic Congress. Not too many lessons for Barack Obama to use either as candidate or president.

MARGARET WARNER: I'm afraid we have to leave it there for now. Michael, Peniel, and Richard, thank you.