Senior critic-at-large

The star of the third night of the Democratic convention peeked out from backstage at the beginning of the evening to plead with viewers to vote. “Each of us needs a plan, a voting plan,” said Sen. Kamala D. Harris, the vice-presidential nominee. It has come to this. She was urging Americans to plot their strategy for accessing the polls because the pathway may be blocked.

Her words were reminiscent of the sort of warning an emergency worker might give to a complacent family: Have an escape plan in case your home should suddenly go up in flames.

How will you all get out? Do you have a fire extinguisher? What will you save? Where will you meet to make sure everyone is safe and accounted for? Will you be able to repair the damage?

Voting is this country’s escape plan from a house that’s engulfed. That was the message. The planet is burning. The immigration system is charred wreckage. Racial justice is a smoldering firestorm. Wednesday evening, women — and former president Barack Obama — led the way in both sounding the alarm and pointing out how to get beyond the smoke and ashes.

Joe Biden is the calming water. The cause of the conflagration is President Donald J. Trump.

“For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves,” Obama said. “Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t.”

The former president spoke from Philadelphia, the city where the Constitution was signed. The room was perfectly lit; an array of flowers was tucked into a corner; a stately architectural etching served as a backdrop. His suit was blue and so was his tie.

The house is on fire. “The one constitutional office elected by all of the people is the presidency. So at minimum, we should expect a president to feel a sense of responsibility for the safety and welfare of all 330 million of us — regardless of what we look like, how we worship, who we love, how much money we have — or who we voted for,” Obama said.

He talked about how Biden and Harris would rebuild the country, contain the novel coronavirus, be empathetic. And then, toward the end of his speech, Obama sighed. It was heavy. Sad. As if he needed to pause, not for drama, but to regain his bearings. Vote, he pleaded.

“Any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election. This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win,” he said. “So we have to get busy building it up.”

Hillary Clinton shone bright. Seated comfortably in a warmly-lit room, she was framed from the waist up. She was dressed in a white jacket and top — and, odds are, a pair of matching white trousers — in honor of suffragists and the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. She sounded less like a statesman and more like a familiar friend — a familiar friend with a powerfully impressive résumé. Her message was simple: Get it right this time, America.

“For four years, people have told me, ‘I didn’t realize how dangerous he was.’ ‘I wish I could do it all over.’ Or worst, ‘I should have voted.’ Look, this can’t be another woulda, coulda, shoulda election,” Clinton said, adding, “Most of all, no matter what, vote.”

She later added, “Remember back in 2016 when Trump asked: ‘What do you have to lose?’ Well, now we know: our health care, our jobs, our loved ones, our leadership in the world and even our post office.” The house is burning.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, delivering her remarks from San Francisco and also attired in white, reminded viewers that Trump is trying to incinerate the health-care protections of the Affordable Care Act in the middle of a pandemic.

“As speaker, I’ve seen firsthand Donald Trump’s disrespect for facts, for working families, and for women in particular — disrespect written into his policies toward our health and our rights, not just his conduct,” Pelosi said.

And Sen. Elizabeth Warren stood in an early-childhood development center — closed because of the pandemic — and talked about the need for better child care because it is a kind of vital infrastructure that allows the country to excel, that allows mothers and fathers to succeed. And to make it personal, she told the story of almost having to quit an early job as a teacher because she didn’t have child care. And the country got the story of Aunt Bee.

“She arrived with seven suitcases and a Pekingese named Buddy and stayed for 16 years,” Warren said. “I get to be here tonight because of my Aunt Bee.”

Kamala Harris accepts the Democratic vice presidential nomination in Wilmington, Del. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

When Harris finally returned to the stage to accept the nomination for vice president, she did so bearing her family story and a sense of urgency. She is the daughter of Shyamala Gopalan, who came to the U.S. from India, and Donald Harris, who was born in Jamaica. She spoke of family, not just the kind related by birth but also the extended community connected by shared history, passions and ambitions.

She wore a burgundy pantsuit for this historic moment when she officially became the first woman of color nominated for vice president on a major-party ticket. She spoke of the economy and health care, and then she settled in for a moment on the subject of racial justice.

“Let’s be clear — there is no vaccine for racism,” she said. “We’ve got to do the work.”

But in her very history-making presence on that stage in Wilmington, Del., against a backdrop of American flags and in front of a socially distanced few, there was the fresh wisp of hope.

There was a reason to believe that if voters can just put out the fire, there will be a little something left standing.

Read more:

Kamala Harris grew up in a mostly white world. Then she went to a black university in a black city.

The story of Kamala and Doug, a match made in Hollywood (literally)