The majesty of the night when Barack Obama became the first African American to accept a major party’s nomination for President of the United States overtook all the sneering about Greek columns and set design that I suspect originated from deep within the RNC and had trickled out to every anchor, roving reporter and pundit in Denver. The critiques had clickety-clacked away all day like those plastic teeth that chatter across the tabletop after you’ve wound them up and let them go. By the end, however, nobody cared about what subliminal image of alleged “imperiousness” would be telegraphed by the prop columns in the background or the CNN-initiated (not the Obama campaign’s) Sky-cam overhead. All those who packed the Invesco Field cared about, all that stirred their hearts and electrified their minds, was the soaring rhetoric, the clearly-delineated policy proposals, the inspirational recollections, and the rather elegant but lethal jabs at the George Bush legacy and its favorite son, John McCain.
Obama’s skewering of McCain reminded me of the best of the Olympic-class divers we saw in Beijing the week before. The highest scores went to those who speared straight down into the pool and disappeared with a minimum of residual splash. There would be no challenges to John McCain’s patriotism here, we were told, because the stakes are too high for the same old partisan playbook, because “patriotism has no party,” and because our troops of many colors are fighting, bleeding, and dying together not so much in service to red or blue states but to the United States.
This was a speech that was long in coming, but the attacks weren’t mounted with blunt-force trauma. More like a stiletto. And I LOVED the stilettos – as stylish as anything Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo ever came up with. There were oodles of them, and all the best sore spots were skewered by them.
Want to talk about character? Judgment? Temperament? For the first time Obama broached, rather delicately, the subject of his rival’s hair-trigger temper – something only whispered about in polite Senatorial company, or speculated about openly only in the blogosphere. Bless my soul but the Phil Gramm verbal atrocities were brought up, too. We’re a nation of whiners? Hardly, according to Obama’s recollections of the salt-of-the-earth Americans he met who were facing personal, family, and/or economic adversity with increasing desperation and yet also with courage and nobility.
The “judgment thing” was rammed head-on when Obama wondered aloud what it says about your judgment when you think George Bush has been right 90 percent of the time, having voted with him to that extent. Obama paid tribute to John McCain’s service, and praised his love for country, adding that it’s not that McCain doesn’t care, but that he doesn’t get it. Many times Obama hijacked some of what you can predict will be upcoming Republican Convention talking points and turned them inside out and on their backsides. One of the more devastating jabs was aimed at the oft-repeated McCain pledge to chase bin Laden to the “gates of Hell” – while cheerleading a policy that diverted our troops in Afghanistan from closing in on “the cave where he lives.”
Experience? Obama turned McCain’s much-vaunted decades of experience in government into a liability by noting Washington’s discussion of the energy crisis for some 30 years, while McCain was in Washington “for 26 of ‘em,” voting consistently against innovative solutions throughout. Obama said he himself was here, in this place, and this circumstance because of a perceptible stirring in America, a longing for change from “broken policies of Washington and the failed policies of George W. Bush” that McCain clings to like Saran Wrap on leftovers. Maverick? Guess again. Obama continued - “on issue after issue that would make a difference in your lives, Senator McCain has been anything but independent.”
YOUR lives – that particular pronoun was key. Obama reminded the wall-to-wall crowd in Invesco Field that what the naysayers don’t understand is that “this election has never been about me. It’s about YOU.” Celebrity? Obama said he didn’t know what kind of lives celebrities lead. All he knew was what he’d seen growing up, working with the needy and disenfranchised, and the many he met throughout his campaign travels. THEY were what and whom he knew well and with whom he identified.
There were other firsts in this landmark speech that I’m guessing will throw conservatives - who think government is your enemy and Democrats are stereotypical big-government junkies – for a loop. Obama stressed several times how it can’t just be government that solves all your problems, especially since government may not have created them all. You, too, must play a role, he said, whether it’s pitching in on conservation at home while Washington drives a wiser energy policy overall, or a call for young people to serve country or community in exchange for a promise of help paying for college. He added that it takes families, with two parents to turn off the TV and make a child do her homework – not the government. So much for the yowling from conservatives about Democrats mainlining some “nanny state.” So much for the selfishness and myopia fostered by George Bush, who in our worst national crisis told us the best thing we could do was go shopping. Not this time. Now, we’re invited to take a more active, participatory role. And so much for the GOP-instigated insult that somehow if you’re a liberal or Democrat, you’re soft on national security. Obama thundered: “We are the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy. Don’t tell me Democrats won’t defend this country…or keep us safe.” Obama continued – “I’ve got news for you, John McCain. We ALL put our country first.”
He even smacked the infamous “trickle-down” economic philosophy that’s blighted this country and betrayed the poor and middle class for the sake of giving more to those who already have more than enough, since it was first dubbed Reaganomics. It was sweet to see this big an effort to connect the dots on what’s ailed this country for at least a generation. He painted the “old Republican philosophy” since the 1980s as just another one of the old, stale, wrong ideas that John McCain still insists on embracing. I personally loved how he twisted the GOP buzz phrase “the ownership society” into “it really means you’re on your own.” This is a point that’s been begging to be made for at least two decades. Out of work? Tough luck. You’re on your own. Health care? The market will take care of it. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps even if you don’t have boots. It’s about time we had this discussion. And as Obama put it - “it’s time for them to own their failure.”
Obama took no prisoners: “if John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament and reserve to be president, that’s a debate I’m ready to have.” He reminded the crowd that “we are better than these last eight years,” and that we’re a better and more compassionate country than one which allowed veterans to sleep on the street or to let a city drown. The 80-some-thousand supporters roared back at him when he declared that we love this country too much “to let the next four years look like the last eight.” His statement “Eight is Enough!” and the response: “Enough! Enough! Enough” echoed around the stadium like the driving beat of Stevie Wonder.
Everything was here. Proverbial red meat, gracefully grilled, the heartfelt nods to Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s earth-moving “I Have a Dream” address. Obama’s inspiring struggle, life story and philosophy, were reintroduced and explored anew. He listed numerous concrete ideas and how they’d be paid for, and repeated his promise of ending our involvement in Iraq, and rebuilding partnerships abroad, vowing never to neglect or mistreat our troops either in battle or when they come home. America must once again be that last best hope of the rest of the world, he said, sounding every inch the candidate who’s very ready for the Big Job. And he issued a call to the nation for a new man-to-the-moon-type project – of total energy independence in ten years. The man can make a speech – one that gets under your skin, stokes your motivation, and gives you a metaphorical banner to hoist in battle. It felt like windows were being opened in a musty, hidden, long-sealed attic. And, on top of everything else, there was no rain – as publicly prayed for by some particularly annoying fundamentalist would-be party-poopers.
This year’s Democratic National Convention ended with closing ceremonies that made it feel almost as though we were all back in the Bird’s Nest. Fireworks zoomed and streamers slithered through the air, and while there was no ceiling from which to execute a better balloon drop than we’ve seen before, they got the confetti flurries down quite nicely. And on top of everything else, we got Al Gore as an appetizer to one humdinger of a main course. ALWAYS useful to bring back the living reminder of how it does make a difference – a HUGE difference - whom and which party you vote into power.
It made me proud to be a Democrat again. And it tempted me to start feeling hopeful again. Yes. Maybe we really can.