Fair and Unbalanced
The speech set out to be the anti-Trump speech, which The Donald, in all his Trumpian glory, had basically written for her.
Now that it’s over, now that Hillary Clinton has met her historic moment, it turns out the Democratic strategy for the week was blindingly clear and, in that rare thing for a political gathering, even coherent.
Clinton didn’t give a great speech. She doesn’t do great speeches. It didn’t soar. It didn’t offer up a theme that touched people in unexpected ways. She left the great speeches to the Obamas and to Bill and settled for the promise that when they soared, they all soared in her service.
What she did was to give an effective speech, which is what she can do at her best, and the speech set about to effectively promise that if you’ve had doubts about her – and every poll says that many do – what you shouldn’t doubt is her ability to govern effectively.
It wasn’t about progressive politics, although she hit all the right progressive notes. She thanked the Bernie people. She said that if they were furious, they had a right to be, and that she accepted their cause as her cause. You may have noticed that not everyone in the crowd was won over by her appeal and that even as she praised Bernie Sanders, he sat stone-faced.
It was only tangentially about being the first woman president. She had a very nice line about how breaking any barrier made it easier for all of those who face barriers to break through them. But the moment, the one that brought tears, was the pre-speech hug with Chelsea, mother to daughter, Chelsea reminding us in her speech of Hillary’s relationship with her mother. That was the moment. And as Hillary lingered in that embrace, many of us couldn’t help but linger, too,
But what the speech set out to be was the anti-Trump speech, which The Donald, in all his Trumpian glory, had basically written for her.
Because Democrats own the White House, they got to have their convention last. They were the home team. And they used the angry, lock-her-up, America-in-decline, close-the-borders, make-our-allies-pay-or-else Trump convention to full advantage as the context for everything that happened in Philadelphia.
The Democratic convention screamed – just to make sure you noticed – inclusivity. It may have stolen Reagan’s shining city on a hill, but you couldn’t help notice that the people living in this 21st-century American city looked very different from those in Reagan’s 1980s. Trump had ceded the high ground on patriotism, which Clinton rushed generals in to fill. She hit him with a series of jabs. He says he knows “more about ISIS than the generals.” Pause. Pause some more. “No, Donald, you don’t.”
Like Barack Obama, she chose promise over Trumpian dystopia. And, as Clinton has repeated throughout her career, she said the problems we face need a collective village and not an I-can-fix-it authoritarian who says, “I am your voice” – a promise, she said, that should set off alarms for anyone concerned about the American democratic project.
What Trump and Clinton share are huge trust gaps. Clinton didn’t put herself on the couch. That’s what Bill does. She didn’t say, as she often does, she had been unfairly caricatured. She left that to the president. She conceded that not everyone gets her, but if you were waiting for the reveal as to who she really is, the closest you got was she’s the woman who won’t be “throwed.”
She said the real trust issue came in the job of the presidency and could anyone truly imagine Donald Trump as the man in the Oval Office.
Her speech was best when she icily mocked Trump, and, in that mockery, mocked the idea of Trump as president. She borrowed Jackie Kennedy’s line about the danger of “little men” (she didn’t mean Mike Bloomberg, as Trump did when he said Thursday that he wanted to “hit” someone) and said, in the line that threatened to break Twitter, “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
“Do you really think Donald Trump has the temperament to be commander in chief?” she continued. “Donald Trump can’t even handle the rough and tumble of a presidential campaign. He loses his cool at the slightest provocation. Imagine, if you dare, imagine him in the Oval Office facing a crisis.”
Hillary Clinton, the most predictable of candidates, one who gladly accepts the word “steady” as a compliment, offered up a Trump who falls somewhere between unsteady and unhinged – the guy who mocks the disabled, who bans people based on their religion, who divides by race and ethnicity, who, well, you know the list. And if there’s anything you can depend on from Clinton, it’s a to-do list.
But she wisely left the emotional slam at Trump to people who had more than felt its sting. The moment of the night came courtesy of Khizr Khan, whose son was a captain the U.S. Army and killed in Iraq in 2004.
“We are honored,” he said, standing next to his wife, “to stand here as the parents of Captain Humayun Khan, and as patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to our country.”
He said if it had been up to Trump, Khad would never have been in uniform, would never have been there to instruct his troops to take cover while he approached the vehicle with the explosives that killed him.
“Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims,” Khan said. “He disrespects other minorities, women, judges, even his own party leadership. He vows to build walls and ban us from the country.”
Khan pulled out his pocket Constitution to say, “Have you ever read the U.S. Constitution. I will gladly lend you a copy,” before finishing, “You have sacrificed nothing. And no one.”
It was devastating. It needs to be seen to be appreciated, and I’m sure you’ll find it in a TV ad coming your way soon.
For Clinton’s part, she closed her speech with a story you’ve heard, of little Hillary coming home crying because someone had bullied her and her mother, she said, literally blocking the door and forcing her to go outside to confront the bully.
You don’t have to guess why she brought this up, or which role she would have Donald Trump play in the updated version. And if the speech worked – and the polls will show, eventually – you’ll be left trusting, if nothing else, that she won’t be bullied now.
If that doesn’t exactly promise a high-minded battle of ideas over the next months, it does promise a battle. And, given the two candidates left standing, what else could you expect?
Flickr photo by brwn_yd_grl
This was Obama reminding America that Trump had said, “I alone can fix it,” and Obama saying to look again, to look more closely, to see the threat, and to say, “No, you can’t.”
Barack Obama came to the Democratic convention not only to praise Hillary Clinton – although he did so lavishly and to great effect – but also to warn what would happen if America somehow chose Donald Trump instead.
He came to make clear that this wasn’t an ordinary election or an ordinary campaign or an ordinary choice or an ordinary anything.
At every convention, we’re told this is the most important election of our lifetimes, and people cheer, and the pundits nod, and then we await the next, even more vital election.
But this time. This time.
This time there’s a Donald Trump and all bets are off. This time, there is no reconciling Barack Obama’s vision of a hopeful America and Donald Trump’s vision of an American dystopia. We can be only one thing or the other, and while Obama made an eloquent case for why Hillary Clinton would be the most qualified person to ever seek the job – more qualified, he would riff to a thrilled Bill Clinton, than either he or Bill could have claimed – there was much more at stake than the prospect of a historic baton pass from the first black president to the first female president.
“Fair to say,” Obama did say, “this is not just a choice between parties or policies; the usual debates between left and right. This is a more fundamental choice – about who we are as a people, and whether we stay true to this great American experiment in self-government.”
In ordinary times, Obama would have come to the convention to celebrate the unlikely and, yes, audacious trip he’d taken and how it began at another Democratic convention 12 years before.
He began there, but he used it as the setup for a speech not as a valedictory.
All that was at risk, Obama suggested in Philadelphia, the birthplace of America, was the democratic project itself. And also, of course, everything that Obama has stood for and accomplished in his two terms.
And so, Obama was all in. It wasn’t simply personal – that he and Clinton had become unlikely friends or that his relationship with Trump was born in the birther movement. It was this: That morning, in his latest piece of recklessness, Trump had invited Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. Republicans would later try to frame it as a joke, but Trump didn’t mean to be funny. He meant to spark outrage, and he meant to fan the flames of the Trump-Putin bromance and he couldn’t have surprised — or maybe he was — to hear even fellow Republicans toss around words like “treason.”
Obama came to praise his vision of America, “full of courage and optimism and ingenuity … decent and generous.” And to insist that the America he knew could never elect a Donald Trump.
“That’s why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end,” Obama said, framing the danger of a Donald Trump presidency in the starkest of terms, in the darkest of contexts, in words that professorial Obama chose with great care.
“That is America,” he said, and the crowd roared its approval. “That is America. Those bonds of affection, that common creed. We don’t fear the future; we shape it, we embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own. That’s what Hillary Clinton understands — this fighter, this stateswoman, this mother and grandmother, this public servant, this patriot. That’s the America she’s fighting for.”
It was a unity speech, yes, but it wasn’t simply that. It was a shoutout to Bernie supporters, but that was just politics. And, yes, he said, Hillary Clinton had made mistakes, but we had all made mistakes, and she made hers, as Teddy Roosevelt might have said, as the woman in the arena. And that person, Obama said, was one who could take on ISIS, who could take on the Russians, who was ready to deal with guns leaving schoolchildren dead in their classroom and the madness that leaves cops dead in the streets.
But Obama’s point, which he made with sometimes smiling incredulity, was to wonder how the America he knew, the decent and generous and optimistic America that had elected him twice, was actually considering a homegrown demagogue looking to find an America that never was, someone whose arena was a TV studio, a helicopter with 24-carat-gold seat belts and a bankruptcy court where the suckers helped pay his way.
And so the terms were set.
To Hillary Clinton’s delight, the convention, which she will close tonight in, yes, the most important speech of her life, has featured three days of Democrats delivering their best material. Michelle Obama gave the speech of a lifetime on family values, the old Republican stand-by. Joe Biden was Joe Biden, and if he thrilled a still-divided crowd with dreams of what might have been had he run, he was there in service of Clinton, as Uncle Joe of Scranton, Pa., who would shout in his best Biden voice, “We are America, second to none, and we own the finish line! Don’t forget it! Come on, we’re America!”
In defense of that America, Obama delivered his version of the morning-in-America speech, talking of an America where “we don’t fear the future; we shape it, embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own.” He didn’t just invoke Reagan, he cited him, and wondered how Republicans could fail to see what he saw.
“Ronald Reagan called America ‘a shining city on a hill’,” Obama said. “Donald Trump calls it ‘a divided crime scene’ that only he can fix.”
This wasn’t Democrats versus Republican, he said, or liberals versus conservatives. This was Democrats vs. demagoguery.
“Our power,” he said, “doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don’t look to be ruled.”
I can remember when Republicans mocked Obama as the savior. I’m sure Obama can remember it, too. This wasn’t mockery. This wasn’t a Donald roast. This was Obama reminding America that Trump had said, “I alone can fix it,” and Obama saying to look again, to look more closely, to see the threat, and to say, “No, you can’t.”
Flickr photo by Nathan Forget
If Bill – who is famously all too human – can’t humanize his wife, then no one can.
To begin with, let’s agree that Bill Clinton did not give the speech of his life.
For once, he gave the speech of Hillary’s life. Not that he didn’t play a role, but it wasn’t the starring role this time. It was the first-spouse role. And so it begins.
“In the spring of 1971,” Bill Clinton says on Hillary’s big night, “I met a girl.”
It’s the oldest story in the world, told and retold and told again. In the spring of the year that time began, or so the bible would have us believe, Adam met a girl, and a million plot lines were born.
But in this boy-meets-girl, when the rakish boy at Yale Law is suddenly made too shy to tap the girl wearing the owlish glasses on the shoulder, it’s not just any cute meet. It’s Bill and Hillary, Billary, whose love story, we’ve always been reliably told, has relied less on love than on ambition and opportunism, as if anyone really knows.
All marriages are mysteries, but few have offered up such public humiliation suffered by a would-be president. And so this, the most famous political marriage of our time, desperately needed a reframing. For those who don’t trust Hillary, and the polls tell us that most people do not, it didn’t begin with Hillary. It began with Billary.
And so Bill would take the stage, as he always does. And though there is every reason to mistrust him, we get, well, seduced by the story he tells and how he tells it. It’s one of his many talents. When Hillary says she’s not a natural politician, like her husband or Barack Obama, this is what she means. When Bill Clinton spends the night saying that Hillary’s willingness to do the hard work of governing is the more important job, that was the story he came to tell.
The job of this convention, of course, is to make people trust Hillary Clinton, at least a little. If her untrustworthiness numbers improve, she will almost certainly become the first woman president.
And so Michelle Obama, in what will surely be the speech of the week, tells us to trust Clinton with our children’s future, because she does. And Bernie Sanders says you can trust Clinton to continue – or at least not quash – the revolution, because he does.
But it was up to Bill Clinton to seal the deal. It’s what he does. His 2012 convention speech famously helped to rescue Barack Obama. He has rescued himself – often with Hillary’s help – too many times to count. If Bill, who is famously all too human can’t humanize his wife, then no one can.
Thus it is that a boy met a girl in the spring of ’71. And he chased her – no, he stalked her – for years while the girl was off doing amazing things, the do-gooder stuff that a certain kind of person does, registering Mexican-American voters, investigating segregation in the Deep South, working on children’s issues. She’s a change-maker, as Bill would call her, changing more things, he said, by the time she was 30 than most politicians do in a lifetime.
From the beginning, he said, he was awed by how smart she was, by how much she longed to get important things done, and, in what was a love letter to his wife, by how much he admired her.
Finally, we’re told, after Hillary twice refused his marriage proposal, there was a marriage. There was a baby. There was a life full of ups and downs. In the telling, the camera goes to Chelsea, who smiles, and back to Bill, who relishes each detail. If that’s not love, it’s close enough.
And if Bill, in his year-to-year tour of their lives and careers, somehow skipped much of 1998, the year of Monica and of impeachment, he did make the promise that “She will never quit on you,” because he knew that we would know what he meant. She had never quit on him.
Clinton knew the ground he had to cover. He had to make Hillary human, so he told the story of the mother on her hands and knees in Chelsea’s college dorm room finding one more drawer to put the liner paper in. He told the story of Clinton’s years in the Senate, her years as Secretary of State, detailing her successes (no mention of emails) and selling the notion that, in a year in which voters are begging for something new, that Hillary always wants to move the ball forward.
It was “Black Lives Matter” night at the convention, which explains the need to move the ball forward. The Democratic Party has moved forward from the Clinton years and DOMA and punishing prison sentences and breaks for big banks. Hillary Clinton spent the entire primary season trying to make her campaign a bridge to the mid-21st century – if, as she was often reminded, a bridge lined with dollars from Goldman Sachs.
But for Bill, the job was not to reclaim his legacy. It was to make the case that the Fox News version of Hillary, the GOP-convention version of Hillary, the Benghazi-committee version of Hillary was “a cartoon,” a two-dimensional caricature of the person he knows.
“How does this square with the things that you heard at the Republican convention?” he asked. “What is the difference in what I told you and what they said? How do you square it? You can’t. One is real, the other is made up. You have to decide which is which.”
The real one, he would say, is the one the Democrats just nominated for president. And if you believe him, you’ll probably give Hillary Clinton a chance Thursday night in her acceptance speech to see if she can prove him right.
You might have been too distracted by how well crafted Michelle Obama’s game-saving speech was on Day One of the Democratic convention to have noticed the subtext, but, believe me, it’s a doozy.
This was Michelle Obama saying that America, right now, is the greatest country on earth and not to let anyone (read: Donald Trump) tell you otherwise.
And this was the same Michelle Obama who, eight years ago, was deep in one of Fox News’s circles of hell for saying that “for the first time in my adult life” she was really proud to be an American. You may remember how well that went over. For having the nerve to praise America for moving toward electing its first black president, she was accused of hating America and of hating white people and, well, you know the rest.
And, eight years later, here was Obama not only embracing patriotism, but using the nearly eight years her family has lived in the White House to demonstrate just how great America can be and challenging the dystopian-minded Trump to prove her wrong.
You don’t have to be an Obama critic to think it was audacious. And you don’t have to be a Democrat to see how well it worked.
It worked because Michelle Obama is now so widely admired that Melania Trump would, uh, quote her at length. And the speech worked because it effectively told a story of a mother and her two children and how she would entrust their world to only one candidate, their friend – as Obama called her – Hillary Clinton. And it worked because the speech, in point after telling point, made the obvious divisions in the Democratic Party seem small in comparison.
I don’t know if Obama’s words calmed the troubled waters at DNC any more than Paul Simon’s somewhat troubled rendition of the song did. I doubt it. There will be a roll call today, Sanders voters will have their say, and it will almost certainly get rowdy again. The divide between the Bernie revolutionaries and the Democratic establishment is real and wouldn’t be covered over by any number of Obamas or even by pleas from Warren and Bernie Sanders himself.
Sanders, who went all in for Clinton in his night-closing speech, gave the game away earlier in the day when talking to his delegates, some of whom actually booed him. “Brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters,” he said. “This is the real world that we live in.”
No wonder they booed. The Sanders people didn’t come to Philadelphia in search of the real world. They wanted Debbie Wasserman Schultz out – and they can thank WikiLeaks and a long list of compromising emails for that. And they want Bernie in, even if Bernie doesn’t want Bernie in any more, even if Bernie texted his supporters begging them not to be disruptive because the disruption only served Trump, even if Warren would be heckled by a few in the crowd for her supposed betrayal of the cause. The Bernie people wanted a Ted Cruz moment. Instead, their own guy was asking for silence. You’d almost think that’s why some taped their mouths shut.
But the success of the convention, begun in chaos, will not be measured by how many of the Bernie-or-busters are converted or whether, in Sarah Silverman’s words, they stop being “ridiculous.” Most Sanders supporters will inevitably vote for Clinton anyway.
It will be measured by the collective force of the arguments – both against Trump and for Clinton. And it’s in both places where Michelle Obama excelled. When she spoke, you could almost imagine a time, say on Thursday night, when Hillary Clinton wouldn’t get booed.
Obama never said Trump’s name, but we still got the idea. She described a thin-skinned politician who sees the world in black and white and usually in the space of 140 characters. Mostly Obama spoke of the experiences she and Clinton shared – as women raising children in the White House glare, as women who have had to explain to their children, in Obama’s words, anyone (guess who?) who goes on TV and uses “hateful language” and “acts like a bully.”
She did for Clinton what no Republican could effectively do for Trump. She explained why, in human terms, she was with Clinton. She praised Clinton for her perseverance, for having “the guts and the grace to keep coming back and putting those cracks in the highest and hardest glass ceiling until she finally breaks through, lifting all of us along with her.”
That’s where the speech soared and where everyone was forced to pay attention:
“That is the story of this country. The story that has brought me to the stage tonight. The story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving, and hoping, and doing what needed to be done. So that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters — two beautiful, intelligent black young women — playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.
“And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”
This one pretty much brought the house down. Obama took her story – which is the story of the country – and asked those watching to understand it in terms of the Clinton story. Did it work? Well, she got the expected standing ovation. And Donald Trump, live-Tweeting the convention, never mentioned her name.
[Photo credit:thierry ehrmann via Creative Commons on Flickr]
Donald Trump is right. This is a dark and frightening time in America.
How else to describe the moment in which thousands of Republican delegates were deliriously cheering the notion that Trump, alone, can solve all our nation’s problems, including those that exist only in an alternate cable-TV-news universe?
Trump, the gold-plated salesman, used his acceptance speech to sell fear to America, to have us look out our windows and see a world that doesn’t exist. It’s one in which crime is rampant, murder rates are soaring, undocumented immigrants are “roaming” the streets “to threaten peaceful citizens,” refugees are terrorists and the concept of law and order has given way to death and despair.
The subtext could not have been more clear. Black and brown people, especially foreign black and brown people, are upending the back-when-America-was-great social order. Cops are being picked off on the streets and Black Lives Matter is to blame. A drunk driver kills a college student — one of thousands killed annually by drunk drivers — and the fact that the driver is an undocumented immigrant is to blame. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are more concerned about politics than about keeping America safe from terrorism, and political correctness is to blame.
And if it takes a law-and-order candidate to put things right, Donald Trump is ready to be that person — and more.
“I am your voice,” he said to the cheering crowd.
“I alone can fix it.”
He didn’t say that Americans would see their way through because that’s what Americans do. He said to believe him. He might as well have said to believe in him, alone. It wasn’t an air kiss to authoritarianism. It was a full-on embrace.
And the ginned-up audience, not unlike those we’ve seen at the Trump rallies, responded with “Yes, you will. Yes, you will.” I’m sure the response wasn’t exactly spontaneous. It’s a play, of course, on Obama’s “Yes, we can” slogan, but think about it. Yes, you will.
Many books are waiting to be written that will try to explain the Trump phenomenon. The easy answers — rapidly changing demographics, globalization and the new inequality, race relations in the time of the first black president, the cable-TV-news effect, government dysfunction and the partisan divide — are probably all too easy. But what’s clear is that people reach out to a strong man when they feel there are no better options. Trump says he will speak for forgotten Americans, and obviously many are listening.
“I have a message for all of you,” Trump said early in his long speech. “The crime and violence that today afflict our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored.”
For those listening for echoes of 1968, the speech was actually pure 2016. Forget that David Duke said he was thrilled by it and concentrate on the activists on the convention floor. Because the scariest thing would be if, in 2016, the speech works. At this point, we all know that underestimating Trump is a fool’s game. But what would it mean if the speech is just one more step for Trump on the way to the White House?
Obviously, it would mean we’d have to rethink everything. As John Weaver, the GOP strategist who is in the anti-Trump camp, put it: “Hell, speeches like this are a dime a dozen in Tegucigalpa, Caracas, Asunción, and Donetsk.” Meanwhile, chess champion Garry Kasparov, channeling his inner Molly Ivins, tweeted that he’d heard the same speech plenty of times, but usually in Russian.
No one has ever heard an acceptance speech anything like Trump’s, because there has never been one. No speech as relentlessly dark. No speech so free of ideals. In the absolute darkest of times, Roosevelt famously said the only thing to fear was fear itself. In a time when America remains the richest and most powerful country in the world, Trump said the thing to fear is everything.
Those expecting Trump to use his speech to broaden his base were quickly disabused. If we’ve learned nothing about else about Trump, it’s that he’s the ultimate double-downer. On nearly every day of the convention, the Trump people flirted with at least minor disaster. When it wasn’t a bout of plagiarism or a Ted Cruz open-floor rebellion, it was Trump telling The New York Times that he was prepared to possibly abandon NATO allies. But there actually was a theme to the week, which is that Trump can win simply by appealing to the same voters who won him the GOP nomination.
It was never going to be easy. Anger rarely wins in American politics. The fact that Trump decided to use a Teleprompter — yelling as he was reading — made an angry speech seem angrier still. He harped on immigration and crime as if they were the major issues facing America. He blamed foreign policy failures on Clinton. He said Obama had divided America on race and “has made America a more dangerous environment than, frankly, I have seen or anybody in this room has ever watched or seen.”
He also claimed he was reaching out to Bernie Sanders voters with his take on American trade policy, but Sanders, who was actually live tweeting the speech, wasn’t having it. At one point he asked, “Is this guy running for president or dictator?”
That turned out to be the question of the night. And if you’re looking for a scary answer, it’s this: He’d probably be happy with either one.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, Flickr
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