The 48-minute speech — an instant convention classic — came just in time. To borrow a phrase from the theater, the Democratic convention was having second-act problems. After the oratorical studliness of night one, when a bill filled by such bracing speakers as former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and first lady Michelle Obama turned the gathering into an exuberant rally on the subject of the nation’s future, the second night was shaping up to be about as galvanizing as a zoning board hearing on height variances.
And Thursday night, with its marquee turns by Vice President Biden and President Obama, Clinton’s presentation still seemed to resound the loudest — until Obama really got going.
Biden, his voice overloaded with portent, gave a fawning account of his association with Obama, which seemed to go over especially well with a misty-eyed first lady (who sat up front with Biden’s wife, Jill). But the schmaltziness sounded as though the words came from an old movie — “I sat beside him as he made one gutsy decision after another,” he declared — and so the endorsement lacked the consoling illusion of candor.
Obama, true to his nature, was the smoother, cooler antidote to Biden’s unmodulated heat, and in repeating the mantra of auto-industry rehabilitation that has been a convention theme all week, you might say he was wrapping himself fully in the cars and stripes. But the man knows how to build a performance, and, as the speech shifted from rather dreary policy details to the theme of aspiration, the president came into his own.
“If you turn away now, if you turn away, if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible, well, change will not happen!” Obama intoned. The speech did not brim with personality, the way Clinton’s did, but it harnessed Obama’s robust star quality.
Despite its agonizing interminability and waning relevance, a national convention still can be a star-maker: the tough-minded Susana Martinez, governor of New Mexico, made a splash in Tampa, and the dashing Castro did the same at the mike in Charlotte. But as with the GOP the week before, far too few of the rank-and-file Democratic speakers seemed as though they could outperform the dullest member of a middling high school debate team. It made me wonder more than once: Why do people with only a rudimentary grasp of how to engage a large audience go into, of all things, politics? And what is the salutary effect on young people watching for the first time — other than to encourage them to go to bed early?