Americans are watching this week the metamorphosis of a cornerstone of the presidential campaign. A pandemic triggered the transformation, but I suspect that some vital portions of what the Democrats are experimenting with in this inaugural virtual “convention” will be adopted in the quadrennial gatherings to come. Because the two-hour prime-time show, hosted by actress Kerry Washington, successfully completed that most difficult of political assignments: It located the drama in the problems of everyday people, and it found party luminaries who could lend eloquent elucidations of possible solutions.
The lineup was Democratic platinum class: former secretary of state Hillary Clinton; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Sen. Elizabeth Warren; former president Barack Obama, and the newly selected nominee for vice president, Sen. Kamala D. Harris. Some, like Obama and Clinton, contributed career-pinnacle performances; Clinton, exuding both ease and gravity, offered an I-told-you-so admonition from her living room. “For four years I have had people tell me, ‘I didn’t realize how dangerous he was,’ ” she said of the Republican who defeated her in 2016. And Obama, speaking from Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution — a setting that could have served him in a production of “What the Constitution Means to Me” — seemed every inch the sage professor of law he might have become, as he picked up on Clinton’s themes of a renegade presidency.
“For close to four years now he’s shown no interest in putting in the work, no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends,” Obama said.
It was red-meat, no-punches-pulled content, embroidered by some stirring supporting performances. In a segment about gun violence, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a shooting victim herself, provided a deeply moving demonstration of her own tenacity. Addressing climate change, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico stood amid a phalanx of solar energy panels to explain how her state made advances despite the intransigence of the Trump administration. And the redoubtable Warren — on an evening distinguished by standout appearances by women — spoke with trademark passion from an early-childhood education center in Springfield, Mass., where she again praised her beloved Aunt Bee, who came to her aid when she was a desperate, single working mother.
“She arrived with seven suitcases and a Pekingese named Buddy and she stayed for 16 years,” Warren said, in the folksiest twang of her native Oklahoma that she could muster.
The producers and film editors of Night 3 found a rhythm so compelling that MSNBC, for one, let the program run entirely without pundit interruption. That was smart, because it was all great, sobering television. Even the musical interludes — Billie Eilish singing a serene original song, “My Future,” and Prince Royce, a vivacious “Stand by Me” — caught the evening’s substance-driven vibe.
The film packages around gun violence, climate change, women’s rights and, perhaps most powerfully, immigration, were of outstanding caliber, and the letter that a little girl named Estela read to Trump, was simply devastating. Her heartbreaking request was for her deported mother to be returned; her father, it was noted, served in the U.S. military in Iraq and elsewhere. Her poise and dignity made for riveting convention viewing, and her lump-in-the-throat sign-off, “Sincerely, Estela,” conveyed a level of respect that authorities in this country had not bothered to show for her.
The buildup all night was to Harris’s acceptance speech, and its staging was the one less-than-pitch-perfect aspect of Night 3. Alone at a lectern on a chilly, cavernous stage designed to look like a traditional political convention, the nominee had to turn up the personal warmth dial to supermax to counter the impression of artificiality.
Fortunately, she is a speaker of dynamic personality who’s learned a lot on the stump this past year about the challenges of campaign oratory. On an evening that placed her candidacy in bracing relief, she made the viewer feel she was ready for much tougher challenges.