Hillary Clinton Just Gave the Biggest Speech of Her Life. And She Nailed It.

In South Philly, she officially accepted the Democratic nomination — and made a rousing case for herself while portraying Donald Trump as a threat to democracy.

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I’m going to say something radical: Hillary Clinton just delivered a powerful speech.

As she broke one of America’s highest glass ceilings Thursday night, the energy in the Wells Fargo Center was complicated. And didn’t we always know it would be? In America? In 2016? In a time in which the basic democracy so many of us took for granted is at risk?

You could feel the soaring hearts of grandmothers, single women and little girls witnessing history being made. You could feel the clenched shoulders of thousands of people terrified of a Donald Trump presidency. You could feel the left, still stung by Bernie Sanders’ loss and alarmed that a four-star general had earlier in the night said, while vouching for Clinton, that America “will have the finest weapons!” if she wins. (“This is the strangest RNC I’ve ever been to,” said someone next to me.) You could feel the out-of-place conservatives who had just awkwardly, if earnestly, stumped for her. You could feel Boomers waxing nostalgic for the 1990s Clintons, and/or trying to shake off their baggage. You could feel the potent words spoken moments prior by a Muslim American whose son had died serving the country — to Trump, he said into the camera, “You’ve sacrificed nothing” — reverberating in so many heads. 

And whether you were in the room or on Twitter, you could feel America figuring out how it feels about a woman potentially leading the free world. In real time. At certain moments, that reckoning was both excruciating and empowering for women around the country.

Almost as soon as Clinton started talking, a small handful of loud people — presumably Bernie supporters who planned to stage a “citizens’ arrest” of Clinton Thursday night — started booing her. She continued speaking. They booed some more. And more. And more. I tried to put my finger on why it was so cringeworthy. Perhaps because it’s hard to imagine the same thing happening to any serious male candidate today, no matter how moderate or hawkish or disappointing to liberals? Perhaps because it felt like every time a man has spoken over a woman?

Then there was the predictable commentary from the press, coming out in 140 characters: She was stiff. She needed to talk more slowly. She sounded like she was “lecturing” someone. She needed to smile. No, seriously: Someone said that.

But at the same time, there were women on private Hillary Facebook groups celebrating the historic moment. “If you could see the thousands of posts from women weeping on those Facebook pages right now … ” one reader wrote to New York magazine. “We are with her. Like so many of us, we are doers and not good at marketing ourselves.”

One of the most effective things about Clinton’s speech is that she addressed both those groups — the hard-working, humble women who saw themselves in her, and the critics she knew would go after her with more force than they would a man in her position — while also making a passionate defense of American democracy over Trump’s authoritarianism.

She talked herself up as a policy wonk, obsessed with minutia, conjuring up images of a public servant who would stay up all night to try to help make the country a better place. “I sweat the details of policy,” she said. “Because it’s not just a detail if it’s your kid, if it’s your family. It’s a big deal. And it should be a big deal to your president!”

She admitted that she wasn’t good at selling herself. “The truth is,” she said, “through all these years of public service, the ‘service’ part has always come easier to me than the ‘public’ part.” But she also made the case that making beautiful speeches is overrated, that the bully pulpit rarely changes public opinion, and that she has a proven track record of advocating for worthy causes like equal access to education for disabled students and working with members of Congress to help form the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

She owned her moment in history, as some in the media have chastised her for not doing enough. “Tonight, we’ve reached a milestone in our nation’s march toward a more perfect union: the first time a major party has nominated a woman for president.”

There were several parts of the speech that seemed directly aimed at pundits. “I get it that some people just don’t know what to make of me. So let me tell you … ” she said, before giving a brief autobiography that included a mini-Trump jab: “The family I’m from … well, no one had their name on big buildings,” she said wryly.

Most importantly, though, she painted Trump as the immense danger to the world that he is. “Don’t believe anyone who says, ‘I alone can fix it,'” she said. “Yep, those were actually Donald Trump’s words in Cleveland. That should set off alarm bells for all of us.”

In probably the strongest part of her speech, she simultaneously mocked Trump (“Really? ‘I alone can fix it?’ she said mirthfully), paid homage to soldiers, police officers, and middle-class workers, and reminded viewers of the American democracy that they must help to uphold:

Really? “I alone can fix it?” Isn’t he forgetting … troops on the front lines.

Police officers and firefighters who run toward danger. Doctors and nurses who care for us. Teachers who change lives.

Entrepreneurs who see possibilities in every problem.  Mothers who lost children to violence and are building a movement to keep other kids safe.

He’s forgetting every last one of us. Americans don’t say: ‘I alone can fix it.’ We say: ‘We’ll fix it together.’

Remember: Our Founders fought a revolution and wrote a Constitution so America would never be a nation where one person had all the power. Two hundred and forty years later, we still put our faith in each other.

She also did something delicious that will surely get under Trump’s skin: She called him by his first name while discussing a topic she owns. “Now Donald Trump says, and this is a quote, ‘I know more about ISIS than the generals do.’ No, Donald, you don’t.”

It was strong. It was self-aware. It was funny.

Were there flaws in Clinton’s speech? Of course. It was far from perfect. It took a while for her to get into her groove. It goes without saying, when it comes to delivery, she’s no Obama or Bill. And for a woman who says she’s all about details, she sometimes lacked them. (Please, tell me more about this, Clinton: “We will … liberate millions of people who already have student debt!”) But to define her speech only by those things would be flawed; it would be to reflexively make her as two-dimensional as we accuse of her being. The truth is, her speech was much more complicated than that.

Follow @HollyOtterbein on Twitter.