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]