Will this be Bill Clinton's last big convention speech? He may have one more in him yet. What's sure is that when he's gone from the political stage, it will feel as if the moon has departed from the sky.
I thought we were going to see the ex-president operating on a slightly lower wattage last night - he is getting on now, and his health has not always been good. Indeed, Clinton looked and sounded thinner than we remember, his voice catching and scraping on his words. But my god the energy is still there, as are the hand gestures (the pointed finger, the out-turned, outsized palms) and the folksy charm (I'm fixin' to tell ya...). So is the mild disdain for prepared scripts. After a speech that contained more than a few statistics, here's another. Words in the prepared text: 3,136; words spoken: 5,895. Clinton's teleprompter operator must have needed a very large vodka and tonic afterwards.
Clinton plays the elder statesman well. Despite having once been a divisive figure, engaged in some of the most vicious partisan warfare of modern politics, he has made an Olympian space for himself just above the business of ordinary politics. Only he could get the Democrats to cheer George W. Bush (for his Africa policy). In fact, that may have been the only time Bush was mentioned in prime time at either convention.
Having established that space, of course, he used it to politely crush the other side. His methodical demolition of all the key Republican claims felt definitive and irrefutable - as if, at last, an adult had entered the room and wasn't pleased with what he saw.
I sometimes wonder if Clinton is done an injustice by those who praise him. He is hailed for his emotional genius, for being a magician of empathy - the only politician of the modern age capable of making a whole audience, or a whole nation, feel as if he shares their pain and embodies their hope.
This is true, of course (at one point, he simply repeated "I believe" in Obama, as if that might be enough to sweep the country along with him, which it probably almost was). But it slightly obscures what might be his greatest skill: the ability to make politics rhyme with intelligence. Last night's speech was a masterclass in how to talk up to an audience rather than down to it. Clinton may be the last politician left in America who believes that voters are intelligent enough to think about political choices in terms of policy as well as personality. He is certainly the only one who can inject passion and flavour into debates about fiscal reform and Medicare budgets.
Yes, he went on too long in the end, getting carried away with his arguments (I love that he got carried away!) but the notable thing is how it did seem to be the arguments, rather than just the spotlight or the moment, that got his blood up. Lower pleasures aside, what turns Clinton on is policy. He is a born wonk - a wonk who did some Mephistophelian deal with the devil as young man and stole the personality of a southern preacher. He wants everyone else to think like him, too. For half an hour last night, we were all wonks. Politics isn't about showbiz, the most charismatic politician of his generation told us. It's about arithmetic.