An opening segment on gun violence featuring mothers of gravely injured or dead children was heart-rending. Gabby Giffords, the former congresswoman shot in a parking lot, demonstrated what courage looks like. Seeing her learn to speak again and struggle to regain her physical and mental health, one could not help but be inspired. “My recovery is a daily fight, but fighting makes me stronger. Words once came easily, today I struggled to speak. But I have not lost my voice," she said in brief remarks. She implored the audience, “Vote. Vote. Vote.”
The climate change section once more showed off quality production values in service of emotional messaging. Instead of vague statements about Planet Earth, the Democratic Party now speaks of climate change in terms of jobs, health and racial justice. Using young people to make their pitch about their future was effective without being cloying.
Perhaps the high emotional moment came at the start of the immigration segment with a “dreamer’s” daughter, Estela, whose father served in the military. Her mother has been deported, a victim of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies. Any caring person would be moved to tears by her story and her pain. Video of children telling the story of their families’ efforts to improve their lives interspersed with clips of President Trump, venom flowing from his lips and treating these people as less than human, made for a powerful, infuriating contrast. Obama’s narration of a beautiful film venerating “our origin story” of immigration reminded us how presidents of both parties used to sound.
A stirring video tribute to women emphasizing how much the Democratic Party depends on their votes provided the lead-in for Clinton. She did not hold back, saying: “I wish Donald Trump knew how to be a president, because America needs a president right now."
“What do you have to lose?” Trump had asked. Clinton ticked off a list in answer to his question: “Our health care, our jobs, our loved ones, our leadership in the world and even our post office.” She unflinchingly spoke to voters who did not pick her in 2016. “For four years, people have said to me,'I didn’t realize how dangerous he was.' 'I wish I could go back and do it over.’ Or worst, ‘I should have voted." She added, "Well, this can’t be another woulda, coulda, shoulda election.” Despite the jabs at Trump and a warning that Trump could lose the popular vote and still be elected, Clinton spoke mostly on an optimistic note about policies Joe Biden and Harris could enact.
A glossy introduction to Pelosi reminded us of her own historic role. She remained on message slamming both Trump and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to move on the Heroes Act, the House’s second bill intended to minimize the economic damage of the pandemic. They are standing in the way of progress, she said as she reeled off the list of Democratic priorities. She attested, “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."
It wasn’t only personalities who made this essential point. Another policy-heavy film on domestic violence and Biden’s role in passing the Violence Against Women Act and Warren’s speech about childcare both directly appealed to women voters.
A film of Obama bestowing the Medal of Freedom on Biden was one more reminder of nobler, better times. Obama took a parental tone, with the solemnity appropriate to our situation. Standing in front of a mock-up of the Constitution he addressed our ability for self-governance, then launched into a devastating takedown of 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. And the consequences of that failure are severe. 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.” It was a powerful argument that Trump is lazy or intellectually overwhelmed or maybe both. Obama’s criticisms were scorching. He condemned “The circus of it all, the meanness, the lies, the conspiracy theories,” in the tone of disbelief and anguish many of us feel.
Obama’s mere presence reminded us of what a dignified, responsible president sounds like. He gave Biden his enthusiastically stamp of approval: “Twelve years ago, when I began my search for a vice president, I didn’t know I’d end up finding a brother. . . . Over eight years, Joe was the last one in the room whenever I faced a big decision. He made me a better president. He’s got the character and the experience to make us a better country.”
Obama argued that Biden understands basic concepts essential to a democracy, among them that “the commander in chief doesn’t use the men and women of our military, who are willing to risk everything to protect our nation, as political props to deploy against peaceful protesters on our own soil.” His remarks were a powerful tribute to Biden — and to presidents of both parties who have at least tried to get it right. “Do not let them take away your power,” he told voters. "Do not let them take away your democracy.”
All of these speakers and segments set up the night’s star attraction: Senator, and now vice presidential nominee, Kamala Harris. Harris movingly told her biography, stressing the centrality of family in her life.
“[I am] committed to the values [my mother] taught me, to the word that teaches me to walk by faith, and not by sight, and to a vision passed on through generations of Americans — one that Joe Biden shares,” Harris declared. “A vision of our nation as a beloved community — where all are welcome, no matter what we look like, where we come from or who we love. A country where we may not agree on every detail, but we are united by the fundamental belief that every human being is of infinite worth, deserving of compassion, dignity and respect.” She did not avoid the topic of structural racism. "There is no vaccine for racism. We’ve got to do the work ... Because here’s the thing: none of us are free until all of us are free.”
Harris did not hold back any punches when it came to calling Trump out. “Donald Trump’s failure of leadership has cost lives and livelihoods.” Without mentioning his name she spoke about the callousness, the incompetence, the cynicism Trump displays. “Right now, we have a president who turns our tragedies into political weapons. Joe will be a president who turns our challenges into purpose.” The bulk of her speech however was optimistic, an affirmation that we are not trapped in the Trump era.
This was a beautifully delivered speech, calm and confident; it felt intimate although she spoke on a stage in a near-empty hall. Biden chose someone to amplify his message and to reach beyond his own experience. Experience — and ambition — brought Harris to an historic, emotional evening. She made her family and her country proud.