Final Argument: Tone

September 26, 2012 Bill Clinton

“Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad.”

I waited a while to write this post about Bill Clinton’s speech to the DNC. I wanted to wait and ruminate on it rather than praise it just because I am a liberal Democrat and loved all his political arguments. As a trial lawyer, I am more interested in the tone he used in the speech. It was classic Clinton who never met an audience he didn’t love. He was always friendly, used his southern drawl to best effect and even when attacking his opponents it never sounded harsh or nasty but rather almost apologetic for them being so incompetent.

Clinton’s typical political speech is more like a final argument than other politician because he is a policy wonk. He lovingly deals in fact rather than soaring rhetoric so his job is closer to ours. And he had some tough facts to deal with especially on the economy and unemployment.

It is not easy to remain calm and personable in the midst of heated litigation. I bet it is even harder in our tough politics. Think what Clinton has gone through in his political career. To remain calm and friendly after all the vicious attacks he has survived must be tough. But guys like him know that is the only way it can be done. No one votes for a nasty person. Whether in the voting booth or the jury room.

It is easy for us to be tone deaf, to not to realize how we are coming off. We don’t always get the cues from our audience and storm ahead oblivious to their discontent, anxiety or disapproval.

I have made this mistake, many times. Afterwards I would kick myself for getting angry and arguing. Why am I yelling at the people I want on my side? To be my friends? I am not yelling at my opponent but the very people I want to persuade. How stupid it that? Certainly it is effective to raise and lower the pitch of your voice but do it like Bill. In a calm and friendly manner.

Clinton reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s take on the charisma of Jay Gatsby also someone who everyone liked: “He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.”

I like Fitzgerald’s novels, but he made one serious miscalculation when wrote there are no second lives in American life. He never met Bill Clinton. The comeback kid. In spades. Gennifer Flowers, Impeachment, Al Gore was so afraid of his toxic aura that he kept him off the 2000 campaign trail. Yet he comes on as the savior of Barack Obama and gives one of the most stirring political speeches in recent political history. Hard to beat that.

Right from the opening, from the minute he walked onstage, to the tune of his 1992 campaign theme “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” Clinton had the audience in the palm of his hand. And unlike the other convention speeches we saw in Charlotte, Clinton didn’t make personal attacks or take cheap shots at Mitt Romney. He proposed cooperation and used a centrist message to reach out to independent voters:

“We Democrats think the country works better with a strong middle class, real opportunities for poor people to work their way into it and a relentless focus on the future, with business and government working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. We think ‘we’re all in this together’ is a better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’

“Maybe just because I grew up in a different time, but though I often disagree with Republicans, I actually never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate our president and a lot of other Democrats….

“…When times are tough and people are frustrated and angry and hurting and uncertain, the politics of constant conflict may be good. But what is good politics does not necessarily work in the real world. What works in the real world is cooperation. What works in the real world is cooperation, business and government, foundations and universities…

“…Now, why is this true? Why does cooperation work better than constant conflict? Because nobody’s right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day.”

Clinton really drilled the political message summing it up in his last few minutes:

“If you want America to vote and you think it is wrong to change voting procedures just to reduce the turnout of younger, poorer, minority and disabled voters—you should support Barack Obama.”

“I love our country so much. People have predicted our demise ever since George Washington was criticized for being a mediocre surveyor with a bad set of wooden false teeth.”

But betting against America has never been wise. “We decide to champion the cause for which our founders pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor — the cause of forming a more perfect union.”

Clinton burst out in a triumphant finish. “My fellow Americans, if that is what you want, if that is what you believe, you must vote and you must re-elect President Barack Obama.”

The usual political speech is far different that the ones we give in court. But Clinton’s was pretty close. It is one we can emulate, both for its tone and its persuasive message.