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Obama & the Conquest of Denver

Denver, Colorado

1.

I tagged along to the Democratic National Convention in Denver with my wife, Ayelet Waldman, one of five pledged Obama delegates elected from the 9th Congressional District of California. Like every political convention, I suppose, this one was quite a show: a spectacle. But it was more than that, and less: in the end it turned out to be only exactly what was needed. Yes, there were singing acts and short subjects, satellite trucks and talking heads, a menu of celebrities. At times the convention played like an opera, loosely based on Shakespeare; a rock concert; a rhetorical full-program magic show; a sporting event. But I can’t pretend to be cool toward the hoopla—it was high-quality hoopla—or even necessarily clear-eyed. Like a lot of other people, I have been trying to help get Barack Obama elected president of the United States of America for a long time, since shortly before he officially announced his candidacy (a time when, if I stated my belief that Obama could win the Democratic nomination, I was frequently, I don’t mind reminding some of you people now, patronized and patted on the head). I can’t claim to be fair, or balanced. But I will try.

Like so many others, I first took note of Obama at the 2004 DNC, when he delivered what still ranks, for me, as among his top five speeches ever, the one where he said:

And I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents’ dreams live on in my two precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.

I was pleased when Obama subsequently won his Senate seat, but after that victory I did not closely follow his actions or statements until late in 2006, when I read in the pages of this publication a review by Michael Tomasky of The Audacity of Hope.1 Tomasky quoted at length from a passage in which Obama described his emotions on being sworn in as a United States senator, the complicated strands of reverence and ruefulness inspired by his first taking up the business of that house, with its history of grandeur and shame, a history perfectly embodied by his august colleague, the former Klansman Robert Byrd.

When I got hold of the book—its title derived from a sermon by a little-known Chicago preacher with the prophetical name of Jeremiah Wright—I found that it gave voice to a feeling about America and its history (and by implication its future) that I had always struggled myself to put into words. It was a history, Obama seemed to argue, that was best understood and best loved when viewed, like Senator Byrd, through a kind of moral stereoscope. One could embrace the grandeur without diminishing the consciousness of shame. One could find virtue in the astonishing richness of American history as in the astonishing diversity of a biosphere, with its interwoven strands of struggle, violence, growth, and transformation.

By the time I got to Denver, I have to admit, some of the joy I initially took in the prospect of a literate, cool-tempered, balanced, and subtle man getting himself elected president of the United States had abated. There had been a peak, in the weeks immediately preceding and following Tsunami Tuesday—ancient history—when the fate of the Obama campaign rocked on its fulcrum, teetering between nomination and the abyss. Hillary Clinton, always formidable, had revealed new reserves of tenacity and strength. A few days before the twenty-three elections and caucuses of February 5, I sat down to write the first piece of overtly political writing I had ever felt moved to attempt, exhorting my countrymen not to give in to fear or those who benefit from its dissemination. And it was right around then that will.i.am released his video “Yes We Can,” mashing up a lilting rhythm and some catchy hooks with the most defiant and beautiful concession speech ever given. That song, at once sweet and unyielding, seemed to encapsulate both the fierce optimism and the fragility of the campaign in those weeks.

It was not that, arriving for the DNC, I now felt less faith or confidence in Barack Obama than I did back in February. Obama turned out to be the kind of man he said he was in his books, dogged and perspicacious, considerate, principled but pragmatic, driven, and oddly blessed with a kind of universal point of human connection, of the understanding of loss, in the place where the memory of his father ought to be. No one who could see history the way Obama saw history, or who read the man’s books, would have expected him to emerge from a nasty, bitter, all but eternal presidential election campaign with his dignity or his principles entirely intact; but Obama had tried, and for the most part, I thought, he had conducted himself with honor. There could have been only one way for the idealized Obama—the perfect candidate he never claimed to be—to escape the rough and tumble of history, and that was too terrible to contemplate.

The problem was not Obama; the problem was that at the instant when Hillary Clinton at last conceded, the nature of the campaign changed. It was, I considered (perhaps under the influence of the kind smile and exhortatory squeeze on the arm bestowed on me by Jimmy Carter, president of my darkest adolescence, as he passed me in the doorway of a LoDo Mexican restaurant), like the change that might occur between the first and second volumes of some spectacular science fiction fantasy epic. At the end of the first volume, after bitter struggle, Obama had claimed the presumptive nomination. We Fremen had done the impossible, against Sardaukar and imperial shock troops alike. We had brought water to Arrakis. Now the gathered tribes of the Democratic Party—hacks, Teamsters, hat ladies, New Mexicans, residents of those states most nearly resembling Canada, Jews of South Florida, dreadlocks, crewcuts, elderlies and goths, a cowboy or two, sons and daughters of interned Japanese-Americans—had assembled on the plains of Denver to attempt to vanquish old Saruman McCain.

Suddenly it was hard not to feel that we were, once again, teetering on the point of something momentous, but something different than the previous momentousness. It was time to get serious. It was time to put on a little Curtis Mayfield (whose “Move On Up” has been one of the campaign’s unofficial theme songs) and take stock of our forces, our resolve, and the odds against us. It was time to take the fight directly to the Padishah Emperor himself. Game on was the nerdy expression I kept hearing people use.

2.

The program, rolled out with an awesome efficiency every afternoon for four nights running, started promptly at 3 PM with the banging of a gavel. No matter how slick or high-tech things got, there lingered always, over all the proceedings, an old-timey air of mock solemnity embodied in that act of hammering. Every time Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, banged the chair’s gavel, she did so with an unmistakable glint of delight in her eye as if at the chance to speak the old, lost tongue of politics in America: “The fourth session of the 45th quadrennial National Convention of the Democratic Party will now come to order.”

Quadrennial; I ate that stuff up. There was a daily mass recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Everyone stood up—on the last night, Obama Night, tens of thousands stood up, and put their hands over their hearts, and said the magic word, indivisible. I was a little self-conscious about doing that, at first, but found that I still remembered the words perfectly, and it was like singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at the seventh-inning stretch, an act of collective recollection of the past, of a time when people routinely stood up and sang together, stood up to recite pledges, credos, oaths, poems.

The entire party convention is a collective act of that kind. It’s a throwback, a holdover, a relic, like baseball. It’s also, weirdly, a formal, public celebration of spoken language, a kind of political eisteddfod. A lot of the language I heard in the roughly thirty-seven speeches to which I listened was undoubtedly banal. The technique known as “staying on message”—picking one or two or at the most six things to talk about, and talking about them ceaselessly and in unvarying terms until they are no longer questioned, challenged, or even, really, remarked as they waft past the listener’s ear—is hell on poetry. The decimated vocabulary of modern American politics, confined to dwell on those islands called Family, Patriotism, Change, Future, and the Choices (Right and Dangerous), beggars most speeches down to their rhetorical rags and bones. In Denver the nearby presence of the Rockies tempted many of the speechwriters to pile up mountains of cliché.

Staying on message also tends to diminish the content of oratory. Most of the speakers offered up pretty much the same things, mutatis mutandi for region and generation and role in society, as those who preceded or followed them. The Message of a campaign is like a textured soy protein that appears at every meal in the guise of chicken or pork or the governor of Indiana, nutritious in its way but ultimately jading to the palate. “That is not the change we need,” Evan Bayh said, speaking of Senator McCain. And Amanda Kubik, a twenty-seven-year-old delegate from Fargo, North Dakota, said, “Barack Obama is the change we need.” In his acceptance speech, Joe Biden employed the phrase “that’s the change we need” five times in epistrophic succession.

I tried to imagine what Obama himself might be thinking about all of this tightly scripted rhetorical wuxia and wirework. Obama, as has become customary with presumptive nominees, spent the first part of the week in locales far removed from Denver, the distance itself a bit of time-honored theater by which the candidate attempts to suggest that he (or she!) has better things to do, is unaware or heedless that many miles away his or her fate is being settled. But it was possible to imagine this distance, as well, as the choice of a man with a surfeited appetite for hooey.

I wondered if Obama ever wearied of the sham and extravagance and artifice. I wondered if his writerly ear rebelled at the nightly catalog of corn, platitudes, and dead language, or if perhaps the pragmatism so routinely underestimated by Obama’s opponents took satisfaction in the seamless forcefield of message generated nightly by the well-vetted objects of his speechwriters’ attentions. Or maybe, I thought, with his lyric grasp of US history, Obama enjoyed as much as I did the interstitial bits of procedural prose (“Ladies and gentlemen, fellow Democrats and friends, we bring you greetings from the great state of Georgia, the thirteenth state in our union, birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr….where we look to the future with an optimistic gaze…we, the empire state of the South, the jewel of the South, the great state of Georgia…), scenting the convention with their panatela reek of mock pomposity, the all but inaudible echoed trumpetings of the electoral past. Mostly, like everyone, I found myself wondering about the speech that he was going to give on Thursday night.

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    The New York Review, November 30, 2006.

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