Is there shame in taking the bronze when you are swimming against Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte? Comparing the three headliners of this Democratic convention, I thought that President Obama fell just a little short of the standard set by the First Lady and Bill Clinton. But in that rarified company, third place ain’t bad. And like just about every other delegate (and I’d guess just about every Democrat watching at home), I ended the night feeling proud, determined, and optimistic.
A little more on the President’s speech below. First, some scattered impressions of the day’s other highlights.
The Governor Holds A Séance — Governor Cuomo addressed the New York delegation in the morning (watch Part 1 and Part 2) and, as predicted, held our attention quite well indeed with a full-throated and eloquent affirmation of the President’s record. He also had a terrific bit (to which this written description will not do justice) concerning the Republicans’ invocation of the “American entrepreneurial spirit” — as though that spirit were something that could be conjured in a séance: the spirit will come, and it will bring jobs and all will be made right in our economy, and to summon this spirit you must cut taxes for the very rich, and then the spirit will descend upon America, etc. I am paraphrasing here, and Cuomo delivered it in a semi-mystical tone that left no doubt about his sarcasm. Trust me, it was great, and it would have killed in the Convention arena.
Granholm Goes Nuclear — Jennifer Granholm, the former Governor of Michigan, delivered the most theatrical speech of the convention. Her topic: the President’s rescue of the auto industry, contrasted by Governor Romney’s willingness to let it go bankrupt (a big theme throughout the week). Arms swinging, standing at an unusual three-quarters angle that pivoted from side to side, Granholm called out the number of jobs saved by the President’s action in each state with a significant auto-related industry. By the time she got past Colorado and Virginia, you couldn’t even hear her any more, the applause were so deafening. Her best line, making reference to a car-lift reportedly installed in one of Romney’s homes: “with Governor Romney, the cars get the elevator … and the workers get the shaft.” My guess is that Granholm was a little too overheated for television, but she sure got people’s pulses going in the arena.
Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye — Remember the ponderous, sort-of stiff Massachusetts Senator who ran for President in 2004? Whatever happened to that guy? Because he sure didn’t show up last night. Instead, we were treated to a John Kerry who was sharp, aggressive, and very, very funny. Kerry went after the target-rich environment of Romney’s foreign policy (in)experience and missteps. He lampooned Romney’s overseas trip as a “blooper reel,” reviewed Romney’s twists and turns on Iraq and Afghanistan policy before concluding in a nice bit of self-deprecation “talk about being for something before you’re against it,” and then offered what may have been the single best line of the entire night: “ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off today than he was four years ago.” The one-liners shouldn’t, however, overshadow a serious theme in Kerry’s remarks, which was a powerful rebuttal to the Republican talking point about “American Exceptionalism.” Kerry argued that we ARE an exceptional nation, but not because we toss around the word and beat our chests, but rather because we DO exceptional things and because we choose to uphold our values, even when doing so is hard.
Muscle Up — Kerry was just one of several speakers who focused on foreign and military policy. For those who recall past elections in which Democrats have been portrayed as soft or naïve, the contrast this year was stunning. The convention had a muscular tone, tough and assertive, that clearly reflects confidence in the Democratic ticket’s foreign policy experience and credibility. More importantly, there were several genuinely moving tributes to our men and women in the armed forces, to those wounded in combat, and to those who lost their lives in service to country.
The Pledge — Gabby Giffords, the former Arizona Congresswoman whose shooting and ongoing recovery have riveted the country, led the convention in the Pledge of Allegiance. There was not a dry eye in the house, and that includes mine.
The Final Act — Back to the President’s speech. Barack Obama is one of the greatest orators and speechwriters in history. That’s not an exaggeration. His keynote address eight years ago vaulted him into the Presidency. His speech on race during the 2008 campaign was one of the most honest and incisive ever given by an American politician. His acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize was a powerful and original fusion of humanitarian values and hard-eyed realism. So, to borrow Bill Clinton’s phrase, it takes some “brass” for me to critique his remarks last night, and you should receive my comments with a wheelbarrow full of salt, because speaking to 200 folks at the Davenport Club is about the limit of my experience.
Here’s why I give him the bronze and not the gold. I think the President needed to present three messages last night: (1) articulate the values that drive Democratic goals and contrast them with the values that undergird the Republican platform; (2) explain how those values manifested in the accomplishments and events of the first term; and (3) describe how those values would be applied to an agenda for the second term. He said all those things, but the three elements were constantly interwoven, and, as a result, the different strands, especially the third, seemed indistinct to me. I wonder if the speech might have had greater clarity and force if these three pieces had been disaggregated. The speech certainly did have great lift and emotional resonance toward the end, but the same closing words would have soared even higher if they’d been launched from a more solid foundation.
No matter. These are purely stylistic comments, and have no bearing on my substantive reaction, which is entirely positive. And, like I said, the speech suffered only by comparison to two all-time great convention performances. In absolute terms, the President’s acceptance was excellent, and it allowed Democrats, myself included, to leave Charlotte feeling as though a very strong and effective case had been made from beginning to end.
I am very grateful that Barack Obama has been our leader during these exceptionally challenging years. I am tremendously proud that a man of such ability and intelligence is our President. And I am firmly committed both to his reelection and to the election of a team that will work constructively with him to move our country forward.
Some Final Thoughts Coming Home
So that’s that. I am typing away during my return flight to LaGuardia. The plane is packed with familiar faces – Senator Dick Durbin (who immediately preceded the Obamas last night), Joe Scarborough & Mika Brzezinski (of Morning Joe), Jacob Lew (the White House Chief of Staff), and plenty of others. Let’s just say that if the plane goes down, my name sure won’t be leading off the news accounts.
Do conventions still a have a place in modern American politics? That’s a hard question to answer. They don’t conduct any real business or make any meaningful decisions anymore. You could argue that it’s a lot of hoopla and expense for nothing. But would we really want to be deprived of Bill Clinton constructing an argument for the ages? Or Gabby Giffords making her way slowly and courageously to the edge of the stage? Or the Eagle Scout with two moms who affirmed so proudly that his family is just as good as anyone else’s? Or Michelle Obama demonstrating through her sheer presence so much of what has gone right with America in the last fifty years. For that matter, isn’t there some worth in leaders from throughout the country taking a few days every four years (and this certainly holds for the GOP, too) to remind themselves of the core principles that inspired their commitment to public service and to present a vision for the nation’s consideration? So, yeah, I think conventions still have a place.
As for me, I am grateful that I had a chance to observe things firsthand. It’s been a very interesting – and at times exciting – experience. I’ve also enjoyed writing about it. (My little posts even got a tiny bit of notice on a national political website, Political Wire.) Would I do it again? Maybe. It might be a little like climbing Mount Washington. Loved doing it once; not sure I need to do it twice. But who knows when the mountain might call again?
At this moment, though, I am just glad to be heading home. I am operating on a pretty wicked sleep deficit. More importantly, I miss Catie and the kids very much and can’t wait to see them.
In a little bit of poetic luck, our flight path is now taking us directly over New Rochelle, the plane pitched to afford a perfect view, almost as though our course had been plotted for that purpose. Out of the starboard window, I am looking at the High School pass by, the hospital, the towers downtown, the shore. I always have the same sensation when seeing the city from above — the problems seem smaller, the opportunities larger, all ready to bend to our will. Municipal government doesn’t lend itself to the lofty rhetoric of a national convention. We don’t have matters of war and peace on our agenda, and our challenges tend to be of a practical nature, but what we do still matters to real lives. And the same values that drive our national ambitions find their way quietly into local affairs. What are our priorities? What are our obligations to one another? How do we build a future together?
On Wednesday, the City Council will meet again. Among other things, we’ll receive a report from our Citizens Budget Panel, seven months in the making. And there’s plenty more on our plate. I’m looking forward to getting back to work. In the words of five thousand cheering delegates: I am fired up and ready to go.