The Hillary Clinton Rorschach Speech

As a public speaker, Hillary Clinton tends to sound like she’s reading the words in front of her much more than she’s feeling them. She’s hardly unique in this way, but the absence of overt emotion from her delivery and body language makes it inviting for skeptics to question whether she really meant what she just said.

So it is that the convention speech she delivered on Tuesday night, the subject of a level of build-up and anticipation usually reserved for the Super Bowl, amounts to a rhetorical Rorschach test – viewers most likely heard what they wanted to hear.

(FOX’s raw transcript of the speech is here.)

Those who are naturally suspicious of Hillary and Bill and their motives surely found plenty of evidence that she was merely going through the motions, offering just enough perfunctory support for Barack Obama to avoid being blamed for his defeat in November – a defeat that would instantly cement Clinton’s status as the overwhelming front-runner for the 2012 nomination.

On the other hand, those who are inclined to give the Clintons the benefit of the doubt can point to numerous instances in her 25-minute address in which she explicitly and unreservedly embraced Obama’s candidacy and urged her supporters – and all voters, for that matter – not only to vote for him, but also to work on his behalf this fall. Short of revealing an Obama tattoo on her ankle, what more could she have possibly done to prove that she’s on board with her party’s soon-to-be nominee?

As to which interpretation is correct, there really is no obvious answer, since it’s clearly in Clinton’s long-term political interests to appear to be a team player. No one honestly believed that she’d use her speech to blatantly undermine Obama’s fall campaign – to do so would destroy her chances in 2012, should the nomination be open. So when she said, for instance, that “we have to get going by electing Barack Obama president,” it’s just as fair to say she was subordinating her own ambition to her sense of party loyalty as it is to conclude that she was shrewdly positioning herself to say the day after the election that “I did all I could and I’m truly saddened that Barack wasn’t elected.”

There has always been something about both Clintons that lends itself to these kind of guessing games. In Bill Clinton’s case, the explanation was simple: Few politicians have ever demonstrated his instinctive political savvy, but he never – ever – admitted that political calculations played a role in any of his decisions. To suggest this was the case was to incur Clinton’s wrath – clear evidence, most observers concluded, of the lady protesting too much. It thus became something of a parlor game to discern the political angle in every word Bill Clinton uttered and every action he undertook, no matter how trivial.

It’s not too different with his wife. She’s not nearly as expressive or empathetic as her husband, but Hillary’s steely reserve is conducive to the same sort of what’s-her-real-angle parlor games. In the primaries, she made everyone dizzy with her shifting public attitudes toward Obama. In one debate, seemingly out of nowhere, she heaped praise on Obama, talking about what an “absolute honor” it had been to vie with him for the nomination. Days later, she showed up at a press conference to condemn his campaign and to say “Shame on you, Barack Obama.” What was going through her mind? What was her real angle?

It was really no different on Tuesday.

“Barack Obama is my candidate – and he must be our president,” she declared. Maybe it came from her heart. Or maybe it was like her praise at the end of that debate – an apparently calculated remark that she seemed to forget about hours later. It all sounds the same.

And even if Clinton’s supporters – the diehards who showed up in Denver still somehow believing she might be the nominee – saw in her remarks a genuine endorsement of Obama, they need only to open a newspaper on Wednesday or to turn on one of the news channels to hear about Bill Clinton’s latest dig at Obama – and to learn that the former president won’t be attending Obama’s acceptance speech on Wednesday night.

It’s enough for a cynic to conclude that Hillary is saying what she has to say to avoid being blamed for Obama’s defeat, while Bill is doing what he has to do to tell her diehard supporters that it’s O.K. not to rally around Obama – that his wife didn’t really mean the words she delivered on Tuesday night in the same tone of voice she delivered every other words she spoke during the 2008 campaign.

The Hillary Clinton Rorschach Speech