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.
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.
Everyone seemed to agree, employing another term from the approved glossary of bromides, that his speech needed to be “a home run.” Obama needed to “hit it out of the park.” But that was not quite the honest truth. We needed Obama to hit it out of the park. That was what we had drafted him to do. He was our hottest prospect in a very long time. Everything we hoped for in the grandstands he would carry to that podium on his shoulders. And that was why I had come to Denver: to add my little featherweight of hope to his burden.
In their supposed collective mood (that arrant and seductive fiction) and in the shadow of the genuine danger posed to their reproductive rights by the prospect of a GOP victory in the fall, women were the primary storytellers and objects of storytelling at the DNC, in particular the stunned, heartbroken, angry, resigned, reconciled, or simply wrung-out (choose your adjective) partisans of Hillary Clinton. I never found quite as many such partisans as one might have expected, but I did run into some, and one of them, a lady from Little Rock, was definitely bitter.
On stage women chaired the proceedings, appeared in the varied uniforms of their branches of the armed forces, played the electric guitar, embodied both houses of Congress and the executive branches of six states. Women’s faces went up nightly on the Jumbotrons to add their stories to the compendium of stories that this convention worked so hard to become. And on the opening night, wearing a sheath dress by the Chicago designer Maria Pinto, of a color somewhere between emerald and teal, a woman strode on endless legs downstage to the podium of the stage set at the Pepsi Center, and told us the story that she needed to tell.
The set resembled a giant corporate logo constructed in three dimensions from immense swooshes of red, blue, and purple; an abstract palm whose fingers aspired to the rafters and whose opposed thumb was the retractable podium that rose from and sank back into the stage between speakers as if passing judgment on their performances, up or down. It had to travel a considerable distance to reach the midsection of Mrs. Obama, who is just under six feet tall. At first, standing there, waiting out our applause, she looked and sounded a little nervous. I doubt she had ever faced a larger audience, and even in the hall among loyal Democrats—to say nothing of the television audience—there were many who viewed her, for a complex of not very edifying reasons, with outright hostility. Oratory demands not only stagecraft and poetry but the creation of a persona, and in this sense Michelle Obama’s speech carried twice the burden of any other speaker at the convention: she had to define herself, and in so doing, help to more sharply define her husband.
She said that she had come before us as a sister, as a wife, and “as a mom.” She spoke warmly of her brother and her parents, the Robinsons; of her husband and her young daughters. As did so many other speakers over the course of the week, she couched her story in terms of “the American dream,” often making her points with a Henry Fonda-ish midwestern “y’see.” Her father worked hard until his early death to ensure that his children did better than their parents, even though multiple sclerosis obliged him to walk with two canes. Her mother stayed home to care for the children and she and Mr. Robinson “poured everything they had into me and Craig.”
Having been accused—having, in her detractors’ view, accused herself—of being anti-American, this rhetorical invocation of the American dream felt at once more moving and more canny than it had in the hands of other speakers. Once she had established the unmistakable bona fides of the Robinsons as a typical American family, she then drew a syllogism with her husband, arguing that in its general outlines and some of its particulars, her husband’s childhood was no different than her own: Barack Obama was a Robinson, QED; an American dreamer, too.
She came across as purely warm, humble, patient, and self-sacrificing, and not angry at all. It was a strong performance, but one that I viewed with a certain regret, because I liked the idea of the White House being home to a forceful, powerful, determined (and warm, and humble, and self-sacrificing) woman with a slender but well-chosen portfolio of legitimate reasons for anger and no time to suffer fools. Michelle Obama has always been part of the appeal, for me, of her husband’s candidacy. But I recognized, watching her, that her characteristic reticence—she has usually been referred to as a “reluctant campaigner”—and her inability to perfectly conceal her awareness of the smell of bullshit in the air, while perhaps appealing traits in the wife of a contender, would be judged intolerable in a First Lady, and must now be laid aside.
In this sense it was not the persuasiveness of the persona her speech created, or of the sentimental logic by which she attempted to liken her husband to the great mass of American dreamers watching on television at home, that mattered. The speech signaled her willingness, at long last, to play the First Lady; to sacrifice, for real, her actual self. This was an oblation which her putative predecessor in the role, Hillary Clinton, had also been obliged to perform, and while in her remarks Mrs. Obama paid unstinting tribute to Senator Clinton, it was the speech itself—its necessity, its grace, the fundamental shame of its needing to be made at all—that went the farthest in establishing the continuity between Hillary and Michelle, in opening a wormhole of renounced ambition and sublimated pride between their worlds.
When Hillary Clinton took the stage on the following night—carrying the burden of Unifier, of Healer of Wounds—she did so not as a mother or a wife or a sister but as the noblest of failures, beaten but unbowed, a Robert E. Lee calling upon her scattered and demoralized followers to lay down their arms and take up the cause of union. It was not a remarkable speech for her in any way—and she has never been anything more than a competent orator—but in its fraught context, and the vigor with which it was delivered, it made a good impression even on a listener who had, not long before, cherished fantasies of seeing the senator from New York afflicted with a permanent case of laryngitis.
If you had listened to her greatest speech of the campaign, the concession made in Washington, D.C., on June 7, you would have heard most of what mattered in the speech at Denver. It, too, was built from a series of extended riffs on themes of gratitude and contention, but unlike the speech at the National Building Museum, this time Hillary sounded perfectly sincere when she praised Barack Obama. The light did not, as it had in the course of the prior eulogy, die in her eyes. But I thought she looked, still, just a little bit shocked as she reminded her erstwhile supporters, in terms that wobbled with a palpable electric charge between ultimate vanity and ultimate self-negation, that the primary season had not been about her, but about issues of importance to all women, to everyone. There had been, we were reminded once again, eighteen million cracks put into the glass ceiling by her candidacy.
Even if you had been for the other guy you could feel the lasting ache in her and the people in that vast room who had for so long lived and died with her erratic fortunes. From the first time I heard the phrase about the eighteen million cracks, I had my doubts about it, not only because there is something kind of humorous about the word “crack,” but because to me it sounded, perversely, like an unintended testimonial to the formidable ceiling that could absorb eighteen million cracks without finally shattering. On frequent repetition by many speakers—the phrase even escaped, on the Friday after the DNC ended, the unlikely lips of new GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin—it lost much of its force, as did the anger of the glass-crackers themselves. And in the end it was not Hillary’s speech, it seemed to me, that finally began to bind up the party’s wounds.
Now and then during the primaries, something ugly had crept forward to peer out from within the familiar, affable shell of William J. Clinton. This thing was widely theorized about, with some attributing its ugliness to his resentment at being usurped by the “second” black president and others arguing that the person whose rise Clinton most resented was his wife. The question on Wednesday night was not if Clinton would endorse Obama—of course he would—or if he would manage to do it in terms that observers would deem forceful or heartfelt enough. From the point of view of these observers, the effect of the speech—of all of such speeches whose purpose is preannounced or widely understood beforehand—lay in the simple fact of its own delivery. Though he was widely derided at the time for his inept “Message: I care” remarks, the first President Bush erred only in the desperate starkness of his text.
The content of most speeches is their being spoken; Clinton had only to occupy the minutes allotted to him with the vocabulary that was expected, and in the end he would be judged to have “stepped up to the plate,” “done what he had to do.” The question on Wednesday night, therefore, as Bill Clinton was introduced by Kendrick Meek, a young African-American congressman from Miami, was how to feel about the man after all this time, after having suffered with and resented him through Lewinsky and impeachment and the whole history of his indignities, to which his conduct during the primary season added another unfortunate chapter, particularly his dismissive, arguably racist remarks after South Carolina.
When he came out, in a dark suit and a television-static blue tie, looking slimmer and happier and immeasurably cooler than the blown and florid, finger-jabbing revenant who for months had haunted his wife’s campaign like a bad decision, we all seemed to realize, at once, how deep and untapped was the reservoir of affection we still had for him, how happy we were to see him, the Bill Clinton we remembered, again. The cheering lasted nearly four minutes, and as the hollers and applause finally subsided, Clinton gave voice to what may have been three of the truest words he ever spoke: “I love this.” Then he proceeded to surprise us all over again by delivering a very fine speech.
He went off-message, having reportedly refused to allow his speech to be vetted by the Obama camp as steadfastly as Hillary declined (so I was told) to share a night, and a stage, with her husband, thus ensuring that 50 percent of the convention nights were Clinton nights, precisely the same percentage that would have obtained, one presumes, had she won the nomination. He avoided the formulaic language that had begun to accumulate like scurf on the proceedings, sweeping it aside with a plainspoken, forthright, and methodical address, a vintage piece of Clintonalysis, breaking every point down into twos and threes, laying out questions of strategy, policy, and historical imperative. He went much further than the mere expected endorsement of Obama’s readiness and fitness for the presidency: he endorsed Barack Obama in a voice that sounded like his own. At one point he said, “Barack Obama knows that America cannot be strong abroad unless we are first strong at home. People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power,” and I felt, for the only time before Stevie Wonder sat down behind his keyboard on Thursday night and started in on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” something of the shiver of pleasure that artistry induces. Only Obama and Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana on Tuesday night, who abandoned his prepared and vetted speech for a skylarking series of off-the-cuff remarks, managed to pull off the same difficult trick of sounding, while engaging in oratory, like he was putting his genuine beliefs into the only form, the only words, that truly suited them.
I haven’t mentioned Ted Kennedy. His presence on the first day was rumored, then confirmed; then we heard that he would speak, and that, because of his brain tumor, he definitely would not. He spoke. Keeping his chin up, looking like himself, he invoked in his address a string of ghosts, and reminded us of his and our youth, and held out to Barack Obama a glowing but double-edged promise. Echoing and transforming his famous assertion at the 1980 DNC that “the dream will never die,” he said:
And so with Barack Obama—for you and for me, for our country and for our cause—the work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on.
It was a good speech, but after three days in Denver, I was still feeling a little bit down. More confident of our chances, certainly; happy with the choice of Joe Biden; unified and forgiving and forgiven. Ready to ride to the gates of Mordor. So what was my problem? Denver was great. You could get a pedicab, and on the ride home to your hotel at night there was an air of Mardi Gras, drums, people in the streets looking for fun. Every elevator you got into, every ballroom or theater you found yourself in, at the Long’s Drugs on 16th Street, there were all kinds of people, American people, cattle ranchers, New Jersey pols, black ladies in grand hats. The house band at the Pepsi Center, like the selections they played, were excellent and witty. When Bill Clinton walked off the stage, they struck up “Addicted to Love.” One night, at a birthday party for Nancy Pelosi, I observed the wonder of Dr. Cornel West grooving to Tony Bennett, and the next night had the chance to meet and be impressed by the junior senator from Minnesota, an early supporter of Barack Obama’s, Amy Klobuchar.
But I still had not heard what I had come to hear, what we had all come to hear, the speech of a lifetime (to date) by the greatest orator of his generation. One of the things that had served to discourage me over the course of the primary season was a general acceptance of the premise that oratory was a specious, feckless, inherently untrustworthy art. The Obama camp would rightly dispute the charge of offering only “pretty words,” but they never seemed to argue the larger truth: that ultimately words were all we had; that writing and oratory, argument and persuasion, were the root of democracy; that words can kill, or save us; something along those lines. “You can only say what you can first imagine,” as I heard Tobias Wolff (the short-story master, not the Obama campaign adviser) explain to a group of people at an Obama fund-raiser. It was a mark of Obama’s fitness to lead, to me at least, that he possessed sufficient natural reserves of imagination to kick oratorical ass.
When Obama made a brief surprise appearance at the end of Wednesday night, after Joe Biden’s acceptance speech, he looked relaxed, smiling. He has a way of teasing a crowd, just messing with them a little, that I have also seen him work one on one. He asked people if he was not mistaken that “Hillary Clinton rocked the house last night.” He thanked “Joe Biden…and Jill Biden…and Beau Biden…and Mama Biden….” But he offered up only the barest hint of any kind of oratory (“I just wanted to come out here…for a little something to say”), and as he left the stage I realized that was what I had been waiting for: to hear how it sounded when the first black president accepted the nomination of his party. To hear what he might have to say for himself, or for us.
Obama duly accepted the nomination the following night at Invesco Stadium, home of the Denver Broncos; the last time I paid attention to football it had still been called Mile High. The names of great Broncos stretched on banners around the bowl, and in taking the stage Joe Biden gave a shout-out to Sixties running back Floyd Little. We got there early, and since the best seats were already taken I hurried off to my section in the grandstand. My wife went down to the field to sit with the other members of her delegation. I tried but failed to locate our Californians with my field glasses, possibly because they were, as I later learned, dancing really hard. Some of the California delegates had been for Hillary, and some for Barack Obama. Now they were unanimous: of one soul. Or so I hear. I was up in the stands, waiting for the speech. It had been hot all week, and as the stadium filled, it had the atmosphere of a sports event, of a long, pleasant Saturday double-header. People batted around beachballs. They got up a fairly decent Wave.
And then, just after 8 PM mountain time, Obama came on, in a trim, dark suit from Hart, Schaffner and Marx. He did not smile as broadly as on the previous evening, but he seemed no less relaxed in front of 84,000 people than he had in front of far fewer. The speech itself, entitled “American Promise,” was a bit of a jumble, I thought, a patchwork, but in a telling and interesting way. I caught echoes of earlier speeches, even a couple of samples from 2004’s “Audacity of Hope” keynote, and in some ways I heard it as a self-conscious recapitulation, a form of signifying, as Henry Louis Gates might put it, on what had already been said, so well, before.
Obama was a virtuoso, employing many different registers—preacherly, plainspeaking, jocular, Lincolnesque—to sound common notes, in a regular but loose-feeling progression, like a piece of Ornette Coleman harmolodics. One heard again certain phrases drawn from the week’s supply of references to family, to the American dream, to the failures of the Bush administration, only put better and put over with greater conviction and flair, than anyone else had mustered. There was also something new: a surprising and effective chest-bump with John McCain, introduced as by a drum kick with the one word “enough.”
And then, in the speech’s final four minutes, Obama began to speak of the morale and the responsibilities of Americans, and ushered in, as we had known and hoped that he would, the presiding memory of Martin Luther King Jr. Obama drew out the terminal s in “promise,” tasting and savoring the word. His resonant pinewood voice lifted, and roughened, and his cadence shifted gradually to that of testifying. Sometimes he paused, inclining his head, listening to the words, hearing just before he said them how they were meant to sound:
And it is that promise that forty-five years ago today, brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln’s Memorial, and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream.
The men and women who gathered there could’ve heard many things. They could’ve heard words of anger and discord. They could’ve been told to succumb to the fear and frustration of so many dreams deferred.
But what the people heard instead—people of every creed and color, from every walk of life—is that in America, our destiny is inextricably linked. That together, our dreams can be one.
I have written elsewhere about how my having grown up during its utopian heyday in the planned city of Columbia, Maryland—in an integrated neighborhood, taught by black teachers to revere Dr. King, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Benjamin Banneker—might help explain the appeal of Barack Obama to me.2 I knew, listening to him in Denver, that there had been a lot of speeches about equality and justice given since August 28, 1963. I knew that it was in the nature of promises, American or otherwise, to be broken. Over the years my hometown of Columbia lost its vision and became divided by lines of race and class and religion. The candidate who promised to try to remake our politics had yet to fulfill his goal. He might fail. But promises, I thought, were like speeches; if you didn’t make them, you would never be able to imagine the better world that they implied.
When Obama concluded his speech, we looked at each other, and then at him, and all stood up, wild with applause. (God knows what kind of madness was going on down there among the California delegation.) We had come to the end of volume two of the great adventure. Now it was time to go save the world. Game on.
—September 11, 2008