In my very liberal extended family, we have several firsthand accounts of the Clinton Charm at work. At a couple of points in the ’90s my older cousins had the chance to meet him, and each was prepared to ask him the question on the lips of every other disillusioned lefty—why he sold us out for the likes of Lanny Davis and Dick Morris. Upon meeting him, each was rendered mute by his charisma. By the time I started following politics he was on his way out of office. I heard Clinton had a genius somewhere, but no one explained what it was.
So I finally got my first real look at it during this year’s Democratic National Convention. Clinton’s speech was quite simply unbelievable, not as in “good” (although it was that too), but as in “I cannot believe I actually just saw that.” By way of background, I realized long ago that I don’t particularly like Bill Clinton. I don’t trust anyone who’s that good of a schmoozer, who puts on such a show of friendliness for people he barely knows but clearly wants something from. I also think the Clinton and Bush administrations share roughly equal blame for the financial collapse of 2008. It was Clinton, after all, who repealed Glass-Steagall and decided that neither party in America really had to keep an eye on the financial sector. We all know how that turned out, and no amount of charm can make up for such massive wreckage.
Thus I went into his speech Wednesday night with my guard up, knowing that the man had something that it was my job to resist. Somewhere around the 30-minute mark, I gave up because I was too in awe of his ability to recall data with no apparent effort and still give a compelling speech. The fact that so much of it was ad-libbed made his feat all the more impressive. I listened to him cajoling, mocking, taunting his friends and his enemies, holding forth on every conceivable aspect of policy, bringing up potential counterarguments, and knocking every one of them down. I gave up looking for any sort of cohesive pattern or schema to the speech, and by the time it was over, I realized I had just seen the electoral-politics version of The Brothers Karamazov.
Gustav Mahler’s beliefs on the symphony—“A symphony must be like the world; it must embrace everything”—come close to capturing my feelings on Dostoevsky’s last and greatest novel. Other books flow smoother, have more nuanced characters, and have nicer prose, but none contain the scope and emotional punch of Brothers K. Although Dostoevsky’s actual thoughts on these topics are incredibly complex, there is nothing subtle about the form in which the book explores the dark side of the human psyche and the enduring questions of existence. The explorations don’t exist as an undercurrent of the novel; they are its heart, and Dostoevsky never tries to subsume them into a neatly packaged plot. Sure, it’s ostensibly a murder mystery, but the murder of Fyodor Karamazov occurs around page 400 of an 800-page book. The book’s true topic is found in one of its iconic quotes: “The devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart.” The novel’s two most famous scenes, the Tale of the Grand Inquisitor and Ivan Karamazov’s meeting with the Devil, aren’t plot points so much as intellectual showdowns. The whole thing, in short, is an absolute mess and absolutely compelling because of its messiness.
Just as readers of The Brothers Karamazov learn early on to give up hope for a tightly constructed plot, my roommates and I figured out quickly that Clinton’s speech would have no internal architecture of which to speak. It was a series of arguments and jabs at the other side that lasted over 45 minutes, and we didn’t realize it was ending until about 30 seconds before it ended. In true Bill Clinton fashion, much of the speech was about Bill Clinton. There was the syllogism that he has been using since 2008 to keep Obama in his shadow: “I, Bill Clinton, am awesome. I am a Democrat. Barack Obama is a Democrat. Therefore, Barack Obama is awesome too.” There was, of course, one of the speech’s most celebrated lines on Paul Ryan and Medicare cuts, “It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.” But a few minutes earlier, Clinton had attacked Republicans for wanting to do away with financial regulations and institutional checks on the banking industry—an area in which there is precious little light between what the GOP wants to do, and what Clinton did in the ’90s.
This is all part of what I now understand is the Clintonian method. If Clinton had given a sculpted speech, it might be easier to go back and poke at the logic underpinning his argument. But as soon as anyone could do this in real time, Clinton had moved onto his next point. There’s a reason the transcript of Clinton’s speech with his insertions and deletions is going viral. It shows the off-the-cuff “Now”s and “Let me tell you”s and “Folks”es that elevated the speech from good to virtuosic. Those verbal tics are the kind that Dostoevsky’s characters make their own. With their outbursts of “Devil take it!” and their dialogue split between rapid-fire conversations and freewheeling soliloquies, they often speak gracelessly—a fact that caused critics for many years to view Dostoevsky as a stellar thinker but haphazard writer. But it’s that feverish, emotive tone that’s so convincing because of its urgency and intimacy. Clinton surely knows this. By the end of his speech I was positive that he had lied to me several times, but the visceral joy of watching all those arguments line up to get acknowledged, pondered, and destroyed with the utmost charm made me understand why people love him even when (as they’ll be the first to tell you) they should know better.
If Clinton’s speech was the intellectual heavyweight of the convention, Michelle Obama’s was the best looking. Where Clinton was messy, Obama was crafted; where Clinton was argumentative, Obama hid her political points behind an overarching plot. She was the Anna Karenina to his Brothers Karamazov. The professor who taught me both novels told us that in her experience, most people loved one novel and admired the other. I deeply love The Brothers K, but looking at Anna from afar, it’s hard not to be in awe of its pristine construction. Leo Tolstoy himself knew what he was doing; even in an 800-page book with two major plot lines, he wrote, “the arches are so constructed that it is not possible to notice where the keystone is. The link in the construction is done not through the plot…but through an inner link.”
Indeed, the protagonists of Anna’s two plots, Levin and Anna Karenina, come into contact only once during the novel. The book is so good at drawing a panoramic view of 19th century Russian society that seeing the social mores underpinning both characters is enough to complete the circle between them. Here, few characters lapse into philosophical tirades or challenge each other on the nature of evil while they get drunk. The plot itself broaches questions of class and aristocracy, hypocrisy and sexual morality, as if they rise to the surface at the beginning of the book by virtue of the story they’re part of, and just float there without being directly addressed.
This seamless fusion of the personal and the political was at the heart of Obama’s speech. For Michelle and her husband, she implied, helping other people comes naturally simply because of the humble surroundings in which they were raised. Of course, it’s usually not considered the First Lady’s place to give a detailed policy speech. Instead, she’s supposed to humanize her husband. This can lead to some of the worst moments of any convention—Obama’s promise that her main role remained “mom-in-chief” was unforgivably mawkish—but as Michelle told the details of her and Barack’s upbringing and courtship, it didn’t occur to me until the end of the speech just how thoroughly she had bitch-slapped the Romney family.
It may seem innocuous to claim as Michelle did that in their youth, both Obamas “learned about honesty and integrity—that the truth matters…that you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules…and success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square.” At least there should be nothing controversial about such a claim. But serial mendacity has become one of the Romney campaign’s hallmarks, even by the low standards of presidential politics. The deftness with which Michelle jumped from her husband’s honest, eager-to-help personality to his honest, eager-to-help presidency was quite something because she never treated politics as a separate beast—just as an outgrowth of Barack’s natural saintliness. It was a triumph of rhetorical craftsmanship, even if it lacked the compulsive watchability of Clinton’s tirade. And I can just imagine the First Lady, waiting in the wings on Tuesday night, channeling the epigraph to Anna Karenina as she got ready to go onstage and wreak havoc on Ann Romney’s new aura of likability. “Vengeance is mine,” saith Michelle. “I will repay.”