Paul Greenberg

Who would have thought that sweltering night in Atlanta's Omni back in 1988 that Bill Clinton would ever be asked to deliver another nominating speech at a Democratic national convention?

It was the young governor's debut on the national scene, his introduction as a rising star of his party, his opportunity to make a first impression. And, boy, did he. But it wasn't a good one. The speech was a fiasco, a 33-minute bore that drew not cheers but jeers from a convention eager to nominate its presidential candidate. Instead, it got Bill Clinton at his windiest.

The most welcome phrase in the young governor's speech turned out to be "In conclusion. . . ." At which the restless audience, having run out of patience some time before, broke into cheers and applause.

What a fiasco. This was going to be Bill Clinton's moment of glory. And he knew it, which may be why he packed every applause line he could think of into that rhetorical Titanic, and of course the overloaded thing sank.

It's a common enough mistake among amateur orators, to confuse length with eloquence, and the young governor paid the price. The speech that was going to make him almost undid him.

Call him by politics obsessed. Anybody he's ever cornered and subjected to some detailed replay of a long-forgotten political campaign, complete with voting results and Key Turning Points, will know how those convention delegates felt -- bored beyond tears and just wanting this person to go away. Their desperation showed as the convention hall rang with boos and catcalls.

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What a letdown. A nominating speech at a national convention is supposed to be a great showcase for a future presidential prospect. A speaker with an eye for the main chance is able to showcase himself rather than the nominee, the way a still young Franklin D. Roosevelt did in 1928. He would soon become known as the Happy Warrior. He had used the sobriquet in reference to the party's fated-to-lose nominee that year, Al Smith, but had to know it would become his own.

Much like the young FDR at Houston in 1928, Bill Clinton was going to steal the show that night in Atlanta in 1988. He'd have everybody talking about him. Unfortunately, he did. But instead of a rising star, he looked like a falling one, flaming out even before he'd really risen.

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Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.