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.
Governor Cuomo summons the “American entrepreneurial spirit.”
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.
As I wrote yesterday, the Democrats put on a great show for the opening night of their Convention. Did Wednesday’s proceedings reach the same heights? Well, if you are asking about the entire six-hour lineup, then the answer is no — despite a scattering of bright spots, the speeches as a whole were less coherent and mostly forgettable. But if you are asking instead about the primetime heart of the program, then my answer is a resounding yes.
Elizabeth Warren’s remarks were impassioned, forceful, effective, and unabashedly liberal. I don’t mean liberal in the cultural (or counter-cultural) sense that often attaches to the word these days. I mean liberal in an older sense of the word. Consider this extended excerpt (it’s long, but worth a read):
When I refer to high finance I am not talking about all great bankers, or all great corporation executives, or all multi-millionaires … I do not even imply that the majority of them are bad citizens. The opposite is true … When I speak of high finance as a harmful factor in recent years, I am speaking about a minority which includes the type of individual who speculates with other people’s money—and also the type of individual who says that popular government cannot be trusted and, therefore, that the control of business of all kinds and, indeed, of Government itself should be vested in the hands of … individuals controlling the purse strings of the Nation.
High finance of this type … wanted [prosperity] to trickle down from the top, through the intricate arrangements which they controlled and by which they were able to levy tribute on every business in the land … They did not want Government supervision over financial markets through which they manipulated their monopolies with other people’s money.
And in the face of their demands that Government do nothing that they called “unsound,” the Government, hypnotized by its indebtedness to them, stood by and let the depression drive industry and business toward bankruptcy … [They] lured the unsuspecting and the unwary to financial destruction. [They] built up intricate corporate structures, piling bond upon stock and stock upon bond—huge monopolies which were stifling independent business and private enterprise.
There was no power under Heaven that could protect the people against that sort of thing except a people’s Government at Washington. All that this Administration has done, all that it proposes to do is to use every power and authority of the Federal Government to protect the commerce of America from the selfish forces which ruined it.
Always, month in and month out, during these three and a half years, your Government has had but one sign on its desk – “Seek only the greater good of the greater number of Americans.” And in appraising the record, remember … this Administration was called upon to act after a previous Administration and all the combined forces of private enterprise had failed.
We found when we came to Washington … that the business and industry of the Nation were like a train which had gone off the rails into a ditch. Our first job was to get it out of the ditch and start it up the track again as far as the repair shops. Our next job was to make repairs—on the broken axles which had gotten it off the road, on the engine which had been worn down by gross misuse.
The train of American business is moving ahead. But you people know what I mean when I say it is clear that if the train is to run smoothly again the cars will have to be loaded more evenly. We have made a definite start in getting the train loaded more evenly, in order that axles may not break again …
Our job was to preserve the American ideal of economic as well as political democracy, against the abuse of concentration of economic power that had been insidiously growing up among us … This concentration of wealth and power has been built upon other people’s money, other people’s business, other people’s labor … It has been a menace to the social system as well as to the economic system which we call American democracy.
There is no excuse for it in the cold terms of industrial efficiency. There is no excuse for it from the point of view of the average investor. There is no excuse for it from the point of view of the independent business man.
I believe, I have always believed, and I will always believe in private enterprise as the backbone of economic well-being in the United States. But I know, and you know, and every independent business man who has had to struggle against the competition of monopolies knows, that this concentration of economic power in all-embracing corporations does not represent private enterprise as we Americans cherish it and propose to foster it. On the contrary, it represents private enterprise which has become a kind of private government, a power unto itself — a regimentation of other people’s money and other people’s lives …
Republican leaders, many of whom are part of this concentrated power, are [spreading] fear among the American people … You have heard about how antagonistic to business this Administration is supposed to be. You have heard all about the dangers which the business of America is supposed to be facing if this Administration continues.
The answer to that is the record of what we have done. It was this Administration which saved the system of private profit and free enterprise after it had been dragged to the brink of ruin by these same leaders who now try to scare you.
The struggle against private monopoly is a struggle for, and not against, American business. It is a struggle to preserve individual enterprise and economic freedom.
I believe in individualism. I believe in it in the arts, the sciences and professions. I believe in it in business. I believe in individualism in all of these things—up to the point where the individualist starts to operate at the expense of society … The people of America have no quarrel with business. They insist only that the power of concentrated wealth shall not be abused.
Powerful stuff from Elizabeth Warren.
Except that wasn’t Elizabeth Warren. That was Franklin Roosevelt, campaigning for reelection in 1936. But, boy, the echoes are pretty eerie, aren’t they?
At its core, Elizabeth Warren’s speech confronted the “malefactors of great wealth” — the memorable phrase coined by Teddy Roosevelt and then used more fully by his cousin. She simply updated her theme for the era of Super-PACs and derivatives. And it is more-than-a-little unsettling that a century after the Progressive Era and three generations after the New Deal, a speech like that is relevant again.
Just about everyone to the left of Glenn Beck regards Roosevelt as a hero these days, so next time you hear a Tea Party activist denounce President Obama as a socialist or call him un-American, go back and reread that Roosevelt speech (or a hundred others like it) to be reminded of the richness and complexity of the true American tradition.
But as Warren herself put it, she was only the warm-up act.
Before getting into the night’s headliner, let me make an honest admission. When it comes to judging Bill Clinton, I am not to be trusted. He and I have a little history that pushes me into a category way beyond mere bias.
Back in 1992, when Clinton was first campaigning for the Presidency, I was a grad student up in Boston studying political science and public policy. The poli-sci literature and textbooks those days were full of hand-wringing about the Democrats’ collapse as a national party. Put aside the temporary distorting effect of Watergate, these analysts argued, and Democrats hadn’t been competitive at the Presidential level for close to thirty years; Democrats, they said, were increasingly captive to a vocal fringe, able to appeal only to narrow interest groups, and disconnected from the values and interests of the broad middle class.
At the time, I literally had no memory of a Democrat winning the White House (I was only six years old when Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford). So, for me, the prospect of a Democratic victory was like a fantasy about winning the lottery — sure, it’s technically possible, but it ain’t gonna happen.
And then along came Bill Clinton. He modernized a progressive vision of government. He spoke in terms that resonated with “the forgotten middle class.” He had the political chops to go toe-to-toe with what had been a far superior GOP political machine. And — by God — he won the election. I volunteered for Clinton’s primary campaign just over the border in New Hampshire, where he came in a close second, but still earned the moniker “comeback kid.” And from the moment Ohio put Clinton over the top just before 11:00 pm on November 4, 1992, and in every moment since, Bill Clinton has always been for me the man who led our party out of the wilderness, and then put our entire nation on a better path forward. I have never stopped feeling loyal to him as a result.
So, yeah, when it comes to judging Bill Clinton, I am not to be trusted. But in the case of his speech last night, I feel a little more confident in my assessment, because my reaction seems to be everybody else’s reaction, too. He was spectacular. And he was spectacular in a way that is uniquely Clintonian.
What do I mean by that? Think about the other high point of the convention (so far): Michelle Obama’s tour de force on Tuesday. The First Lady was perfect in the classic sense: every word, expression, and intonation just right. Clinton … not so much. He went off-script here, there, and everywhere, got lost a couple of times in his syntax or his statistics, and plowed right past his scheduled wrap-up. And, yet (and maybe this is a metaphor for Clinton’s whole political life), he somehow assembled this messy batch of imperfections into an address that WAS perfect.
A clear and ringing affirmation of President Obama’s record in the face of overwhelming challenges. The best statement I’ve ever heard about the difference between honorable disagreement and partisan obstructionism. And a brutally effective takedown of the Republican campaign and platform, in terms that managed to be at once chock-a-block with factual detail and yet fully engaging and understandable.
And he was loving every minute of it — loose and funny — with his references to the GOP’s “alternative universe” and defiance of “arithmetic,” and his faux-admiration for Paul Ryan’s “brass” in attacking Obama’s Medicare record.
The crowd in the arena was over the moon. Smiling, cheering, up on our feet, shaking our heads in disbelief as one of the great practitioners of the political arts performed for our edification and entertainment.
Convention speeches rarely have staying power. The cheering ends. The campaign moves on. But for a few wonderful minutes, while Bill Clinton was speaking in Charlotte, it was as though all the sophistry and distortions of the 30-second ads, all the misleading claims and counterclaims, all the wildly inaccurate depictions of history and wildly off-base predictions of the future, all the fuzzy facts and crackpot conspiracy theories, were just swept away, and the simple truths of this moment in American democracy and of our choice in this election were laid bare for all to see and understand. And maybe, just maybe, those words will outlast the normal half-life of a speech and continue to shape the character of this campaign for the better.
Alright, I am supposed to be using these posts to report on my own activities, so I’d better bring my Clinton idolatry to a close and say at least a few words about my day. Since this post is already getting overlong, I’ll be brief.
First, I attended a Democratic Municipal Officials (DMO) reception at a local restaurant. In contrast to the U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering the day before, this event did include lots of folks whose experience was relevant and relatable to New Rochelle, and I really enjoyed speaking with colleagues from every corner of the country, most of whom represented smaller and medium-sized communities. It was very interesting to share notes about both common and disparate challenges, and I always pick up food for thought in these discussions. I have to thank Chuck Lesnick, the Yonkers City Council President and New York State DMO President, for encouraging me to join the organization and for introducing me to lots of folks at the reception. And I was also very glad to meet in person the DMO’s national head, Eric Garcetti, who is a Los Angeles City Council Member and a front-runner in the race for Mayor of LA. Eric is a much bigger political fish than I am, and, ordinarily, we wouldn’t have much connection, but over the years, through mutual good friends, we’ve actually exchanged emails a few times about, of all strange things, the game Boggle. It’s a long story, not worth getting into … suffice it to say that, if I could vote in LA, I would vote Garcetti.
Second, at the convention arena, I spent a fair amount of time just a seat away from Bill Thompson, the former New York City Comptroller and most recent Democratic candidate for NYC Mayor. It can be a little dangerous to judge someone from a single night of conversation, but I really liked him. He had a wry sense of humor, a keen eye for the absurdities of politics, and an air of personal modesty that I found really appealing. There was a very minor hubbub in the New York delegation as some people — mainly State legislators — jockeyed for a position close to the state sign. It was ridiculous — I mean, really, who cares?! Thompson, to his credit, wanted no part of it; he just sat back and took in the show with us lesser attendees, which gets him a gold star in my ledger. So, even though it’s a pretty lousy picture of me, my photo for today’s post features Bill Thompson on the left, Symra Brandon (the Yonkers Democratic Party Chair) in the center, and yours truly on the right.
Lastly, I am told that I was shown briefly on C-SPAN, cheering as Senator Kirstin Gillibrand was introduced. I cannot confirm this rumor, but if true, this might vault me into a category of television stardom previously reserved only for participants in our local cablecast of Council meetings. If the tens of — millions(?), thousands(?) — well, just plain tens of people who were watching would like my autograph, I will gladly provide it.
This morning, Governor Cuomo will address the New York delegation, and I expect he WILL hold our attention. Then, tonight, we hear from the President.
Writing yesterday afternoon, I expressed some ambivalence about the warm-up activities here in Charlotte and my eagerness to get on with the show. Well, that ambivalence is now gone. The Convention’s opening night was exceptionally impressive, with speeches and videos that were moving, funny, powerful, and pointed — with a confident, coherent message that bound together the entire program. And the evening was capped off by a speech from First Lady Michelle Obama that has to rank as one of the great Convention performances in modern history. More on that below.
First, a little setting of the scene. After passing a gauntlet of security and small clusters of rain-drenched protesters (I couldn’t quite make out what they were protesting), most delegates took their seats at about 5:00 pm, just as the official program was getting underway. The energy level was high even early in the evening, and it built as things progressed toward prime time. The New York delegation, as previously reported, was sited quite far away from the podium, with more desirable seating assigned to swing states and, of course, to Illinois, Delaware, and North Carolina. We grumbled a bit, but only in a good-natured way, and there was a nice feeling of camaraderie among attendees. Being so distant, we could only observe the proceedings on the large electronic screen, so, as a purely visual experience, the Convention was not much different from watching at home. In every other respect, however, it felt different, more interesting and much more participatory. Signs corresponding to particular speeches were distributed efficiently, and we all hoisted them on cue — thus discharging the primary duty of a modern-day Convention delegate: television prop.
The themes of the night were driven home by speaker after speaker, with surprising discipline. And while the trappings of this or any other Convention can easily be characterized as superficial, the content was substantive and important. I heard four basic messages:
We Are Making Progress — Are we better off than we were four years ago? You bet! The President inherited an economy in free-fall, shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs every month and with a financial system nearing collapse. Since then, the private sector has created more than 4.5 million new jobs. Yes, the economy is still struggling and our work is far from done — we all know it, and I feel it every day wrestling with New Rochelle’s budget challenges. But Republicans are banking on a kind of national amnesia that forgets the disastrous conditions that resulted from his predecessor’s policies and ignores the positive trend line under Obama.
Real Lives Hang in the Balance — Again and again, speakers and videos illustrated how real people were positively affected by the President’s actions. This was particularly true of health insurance reform. There was nothing defensive or sheepish about the all-out celebration of Obamacare. And given the confusing and often misleading rhetoric surrounding the subject of health care, it was good to be reminded of the essentials: tens of millions of Americans will now have access to affordable, quality health care; and no one will be denied care because of pre-existing conditions or lifetime benefit caps. Those are huge accomplishments, and they matter.
The Alternative is a Proven Failure — The Romney platform doubles-down on all the bad ideas that got our country into a mess in the first place: raise taxes and cut benefits for the middle class and working families; provide huge tax breaks to the well-off; and eviscerate essential investments that drive long-term economic growth in education, infrastructure, research, and clean energy. I happen to think that the approach contained in the GOP platform and articulated in the GOP House budget is deeply flawed at the level of principle, but even if you put that aside and look at things from a purely practical perspective: their strategy has been a total bust. It hasn’t worked, and it won’t work. Why would we ever go back to a plan of action that is a proven failure?
We’re Stronger Together — If there is a core distinction between Democrats and Republicans (at least at the national level), it is that Democrats see a broader role for public action in promoting individual opportunity and advancing the common good, while Republicans believe that public action restrains or discourages private initiative to the detriment of all. In a campaign, there is a tendency to reduce these philosophies to caricature, so let’s be fair: Democrats really do believe in free market capitalism and celebrate individual achievement, and Republicans really do understand that there is a legitimate role for government in a functioning society. But the differences are real and meaningful. And I thought yesterday’s speakers did a wonderful job of laying out the Democratic brief: for an individual’s hard work to pay off, for a business to succeed, and for a nation to prosper, we need schools that are capable of educating and training tomorrow’s workers, we need infrastructure that can transport goods efficiently, we need basic research that can foster new technologies and products, we need an environment that is conducive to public health. In short, there are some things (lots of things) that we can ONLY do together.
Now for some reviews. Nothing especially original about them, and most of these impressions seem to be pretty widely shared.
Most Powerful — The most powerful presentations did not come from the professional politicians, but from average folks who described their own experiences: the parent of a child with a congenital heart defect, a firefighter from Cincinnati who affirmed the value of public service, the mother of four boys in the military (with a fifth also bound for service). In the end, anecdotes are not a great guide to action — you need harder and broader evidence — but personal testimonials make the stakes of public action much more vivid and understandable. And the poise of these non-professional speakers in the glare of the television lights was just remarkable.
Best Speeches (On The Undercard) — I’d give the nod to three. First, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who made a forceful case for Democratic values and really connected with the crowd. Second, former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, who used humor and some lacerating language to just pummel Romney. Strickland’s speech was probably the most polarizing of the night — ambrosia for the Democratic partisans, probably too combative for others. It wouldn’t have been appropriate as the evening’s entree, but worked well as an appetizer. Third, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who radiated strength and conviction. I hadn’t heard him speak at length before now and was very impressed.
Best Video — There were a number of very well-produced videos that interspersed the speeches. The best was a tribute reel to Ted Kennedy, which included a clip from his 1994 senatorial debate with Mitt Romney. Let’s just say that this clip will not be appearing in any Romney ads. Brutal.
Most Disappointing Speech — I have to give this one to Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who spoke immediately before the keynote. Maybe it’s because O’Malley had the misfortune of following Deval Patrick, but he came across as lacking gravity — a speech than in both content and delivery was light as a feather. Not a great start for O’Malley’s rumored 2016 presidential bid. (But then Bill Clinton bombed at the 1988 Democratic convention, and then made out quite well four years later, so who knows?)
Most Potential (But Still Not Quite There) — Aside from the First Lady, the most anticipated speech of the night was the keynote from San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. I had a mixed reaction to this one. On the one hand, Castro himself was enormously appealing — relaxed, conversational, smart, and with an engaging personal story. (He may also have the best smile I have ever seen in any public official. If that sounds a little silly, view him yourself and see if you don’t agree.) On the other hand, I thought the text of his speech could have been tighter and more focused, the points made a little more clearly and memorably. Make no mistake, this was a good speech. It just wasn’t a great one, and given the prominence of the keynote, I wanted great.
Event of the Night, By Far — If you didn’t see it live, do yourself a favor and watch a replay of Michelle Obama’s speech. I’ve read some of the commentary this morning and can’t add much to the general consensus . . . it was as close to perfect as a speech can be. She managed all at once to be down-to-earth and impossibly glamorous, and she connected to the experience of national leadership to the lives touched by her and the President’s service. Watching her, what I felt most was intense pride that this was our nation’s First Lady. What a way to end the night.
This morning’s activities are fairly light, so, in addition to writing this post, I am going to focus from afar on a variety of City issues. I get antsy being away from my desk for too long, and am glad to have a few hours to catch up on business. Later today, there are a couple of functions for municipal officials, then it is back to the arena for Bill Clinton. Clinton has a tough act to follow, but he’s no slouch himself.
The Convention won’t be formally gaveled into session until late this afternoon (a couple of hours from the time I am writing), so I’ll have to hold any comment about tonight’s headline speakers until tomorrow’s post. But even though the Convention has not yet technically begun, Convention-related activities are in full swing.
First up was a breakfast meeting of the New York delegation. Senator Chuck Schumer was the biggest name in attendance today, and he caused a pleasant stir as he greeted well-wishers. While delegates picked through their eggs and toast, they were treated to a series of brief speeches from a number of prominent NY Democrats. I am very glad that my relative unimportance excuses me from this duty, because holding the crowd’s attention is a thankless task. There are only so many original ways to say “Obama Good, Romney Bad,” and delivering the same sermon to the same choir gets old pretty fast.
In truth, preaching to the choir may qualify as the theme for most of the preliminary activities here. After the breakfast, I attended a municipal gathering sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. New Rochelle was one of the smaller communities represented in the room, which included, among others, the mayors of Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Although the event was nominally non-partisan, I doubt there were any Republicans present. The speeches here, like those at breakfast, fit the expected pattern, with an added twist of self-congratulation for the all-important role of the mayor. We also heard from Minority Leader Pelosi, who joined in agreeing that mayors are very important, indeed.
Then it was off to the NASCAR Hall of Fame for a rally in support of reproductive health care and choice, sponsored by Planned Parenthood. Quite a few members of the Westchester delegation attended this one. And, yes, the messages were once again delivered and cheered in predictable form, but the event did have the interesting benefit of combining two cultural icons that one wouldn’t ordinarily put in the same sentence, and it worked! NASCAR and Planning Parenthood — who knew? — the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of the day.
OK. I am reading this over and realizing that it sounds a little snarky. So don’t get me wrong. I truly enjoy a good political speech. And firing up the faithful is unquestionably part of the Convention’s function. When I cheered, it was with real enthusiasm and sincere agreement — I wasn’t just dutifully slapping my hands together. So if I come across as a bit jaded, please chalk it up to impatience. The Convention won’t assume its primary function of persuading the undecided and mobilizing the apathetic until we get to the prime time speeches that are broadcast into tens of millions of homes. I’m just eager for that Main Event to get rolling.
While waiting for said Main Event, this is a good moment for me to offer a big thank you to my friends Ruth and Bill, who, along with their adorable daughters Sophie and Katherine, are hosting me in Charlotte. (On my first night here, the girls put out place cards at dinner. Mine said “Nome.” Close enough! And I’ve certainly been called worse.) Ruth and her sisters are responsible for introducing me and Catie, so her and Bill’s generous hospitality in Charlotte is actually the least of things for which I owe them gratitude.
While serving as a Democratic delegate in Charlotte, I’ll do my best to share a few observations about the experience for those who are interested back home. The main event doesn’t get underway until tomorrow, so today is mainly about exploring and waiting.
I am writing from within the Time-Warner Arena, which is fully decked out for the convention. Video screens everywhere, mainly in muted blues, sort of a tasteful interior version of Times Square. It’s smaller and more intimate than I had expected. On Thursday, when the President speaks, we’ll move to the much larger Bank of America stadium.
For now, the arena is occupied with staffers and members of the media, busy making preparations, testing the audio systems, adjusting the monitors, etc. The seats in the stands are mostly empty, giving everything a calm before the storm quality — and also affording me a chance to take this photo alongside the New York sign. That may be the closest I get to the sign all week!
Our state’s delegation, by the way, has been situated in the farthest reaches of the arena, wedged between Alabama and Arkansas, but I expect we’ll be able to see everything just fine.
I began the morning with other New Yorkers at an official breakfast at a Doubletree Hotel about six miles from the convention center. Shuttle buses provide continuous transportation back and forth, but I decided to walk instead, figuring it would give me a chance to explore Charlotte a bit. It’s pretty hot and humid, so I am a little wilted now, but I don’t regret the choice. It’s interesting to see how the pieces of the city fit together, and you can appreciate the texture of neighborhoods more fully on foot than through a bus window. Some highlights: an impressive greenway created by the county government alongside a restored stream, some very stately boulevards (think Pinebrook, except lined with $2 million homes), and then a transition to the downtown area (which is called “uptown”).
The downtown itself is crawling with security and largely walled off from the public. My delegate credentials allowed me access, but the area still has a slightly eerie, hollowed-out quality. Not surprising, and probably necessary, but it still feels strange that a ritual of democracy is held in an atmosphere of authoritarian lockdown.
In thinking about the Convention in recent days — and now being here — I am continuously struck by the tension between the insubstantiality of the event itself and the importance of the larger process it serves. We all recognize that conventions have lost their historical purpose. And I don’t kid myself: as a delegate, my function is to serve as a prop in a television production. But the stakes in the election are so enormous and the contrast between the values and programs of the Presidential candidates so large, that I do believe there is value in an event that communicates a governing vision in a fashion that is sustained and attention-grabbing. In that sense, I am proud to be here and to play my (very little) part.
That’s it for now. I’ll try to check in again later in the week.