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The Edgiest Democratic Convention Since 1988

This seems to me the edgiest Democratic National Convention since 1988. Then those running the convention were worried about what Jesse Jackson would do. Now those running the convention are worried, not so much about what Hillary Clinton will do--she will deliver a rousing call for electing Barack Obama--but what some of her followers will do, and about what Bill Clinton will do. The Obama campaign people are adjusting to the fact that Obama enters the convention not well ahead of John McCain, but only barely ahead or even; and that he enters a convention where a sizeable number of Clinton supporters--more than I predicted in early June--are unreconciled to his victory. I've already written about how the Obama campaign's decision to stage the acceptance speech in the Invesco Field outdoor stadium was pushed by the fact that the alternative was to speak in a small hall in which nearly half the delegates were elected to support Clinton.

And they have to deal with the problem of Bill Clinton. The rumor mill is that Clinton was miffed on being assigned to speak on foreign policy; he wanted to speak on his (in his view, very successful) domestic policies which (in his view, I am guessing) he has not seen any Democratic candidate this year, including his wife, pay proper obeisance to. Anyhow, I saw John Podesta, Clinton's second term chief of staff, out by the fast food stands in the Pepsi Center. He told me that he hadn't spoken to President Clinton in a week and that he had no doubt Clinton would deliver a ringing endorsement of Obama, as (he said) he had of Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. I asked if he had seen the Bill Clinton speech text. He laughed at my naïveté. "We were still working over the speech text in the car over to the Fleet Center in 2004," he said, referring to his speech for Kerry in Boston. The point: the Obama campaign, try as it might, cannot completely control Bill Clinton.

Now the Obama campaign is trying to adjust to the fact that, thanks in part to John McCain's Paris Hilton/Britney Spears/celebrity ad, his rock star performances are turning more voters off than on. How do you make the Invesco Field speech an intimate conversation between the nominee and the voter watching on TV? And how do you convey a sense of fallible but likeable humanity in a figure whose orations are stirring 75,000 listeners to frenzy? And how do you fill in the blanks voters currently have on Obama's detailed proposals and on his own personality?

Back to Monday night. The highlights were what might be the last spotlight appearance in a Democratic National Convention of a member of the Kennedy family and the first spotlight appearance in a Democratic National Convention of a member of the Obama family.

Edward Kennedy goes back a long way in Democratic National Conventions. I am assuming (readers, please correct me if I am wrong) that he was in attendance at the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, when presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson left the vice presidential nomination up to the delegates, and in which John F. Kennedy, after trailing Estes Kefauver on the first ballot, approached to within 40 votes of the nomination on the second ballot. (Why did Stevenson do this? One reason may have been that his grandfather Adlai E. Stevenson, selected at Grover Cleveland's behest to become vice president in 1892, was also the winner when William Jennings Bryan, whom Cleveland did not support at all as presidential nominee in 1896, threw the vice presidency open to the delegates for the second time in 1900.) Kennedy's bid was stymied when the third place candidate, Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee (nobody bothered to call him Albert, Sr., then; our Al Gore was 8 years old) switched his votes to his fellow Tennessean Kefauver. That was 52 years ago.

Edward Kennedy was also arguably crucial in the 1960 National Convention. He had been put in charge, by his brother Robert Kenney, presumably at the instigation of his father Joseph Kennedy (who that year was 72 years old, the same age as John McCain will be later this week) of the low-number-of-delegates Western states. He was 28 years old and not taken seriously by pretty much anybody. But by dumb luck or otherwise, the delegation that gave John Kennedy the majority of delegates was Wyoming, a Western state worked by Teddy, and right at the end of the roll call, just before the territories. (The roll call was alphabetical then, as now. In 1972, party reformers assigned the order of the roll call by lot, on the ground that alphabetical precedence should be neutralized by randomness; California turned out to be the first state in the roll call. In the nineteenth century, the roll call was geographical, starting with the New England states, which meant they could swing voters to dark horse candidates, like New Hampshire's Franklin Pierce, even though New England was far from the Democrats' strongest regions then.)

Edward Kennedy could, probably, have been nominated for president in 1968; Bill Daley and Richie Daley say their father was ready to endorse him, but he refused to be a candidate. His 1980 "the dream will never die" speech is a classic, even though he contested the nomination aggressively though he came into the convention with a significantly smaller percentage of the delegates than Hillary Clinton did this week. Anyway, his performance Monday night, preceded by a reedy but heartfelt speech by his niece Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and by a video concentrating on his love of sailing (I'll leave to Kennedy's conservative critics comments on this), was in my view genuinely moving. I'm told that Kennedy was physically weak after arriving in Denver but insisted on delivering a necessarily brief speech which nonetheless made reference to his earlier efforts. And to his early and heartfelt endorsement of Barack Obama. Kennedy has been a factor in 14 of the 46 Democratic National Conventions held between 1832 and 2008, and of course the delegates had in mind the likelihood that no one would ever see him on such a podium again. Even if you think that everything he said was nonsense, and even if you cannot resist bringing to the fore the aspects of his career which do not shed favorable light on him, how can you deny that history has its claims? And to salute the gallantry to summon up the strength to address one, probably last, Democratic National Convention in the face of deathly illness? There was great applause in the hall, but I had the feeling that most in the audience didn't entirely appreciate the historical significance of what they were lucky to be witness to.

About half an hour later we heard the address of Michelle Obama, preceded by a graceful video featuring her mother and an introduction from her brother, Craig Robinson, until recently the basketball coach at Brown University and now the basketball coach at Oregon State University (cheers from the Oregon delegation when he hailed the Beavers). Michelle Obama's speech, much briefer and more disciplined than the speech Jesse Jackson gave celebrating his family at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, was artfully crafted. The Obama campaign has it clearly in mind that they must humanize their rather cerebral candidate and that one of the functions of these celebratory convention is to place the nominee in American history, to show how he relates to Americans striving to improve their country in the past and how he alone of all our citizens can lead us into a better future.

Michelle Obama delivered an artful speech which I think deserves a good solid B -- not a bad grade, but not the best one. There was a theory of American history, or a paradigm: "the world as it is just won't do, that we have an obligation to fight for the world as it should be." Michelle Obama does not describe America, as she has done on the stump, as a "mean country," but as an imperfec country, capable of improvement and pregnant with the possibility of improvement. This is a trope that conservatives, aware of imperfections as they are, as well as liberals can resort to: Edmund Burke was all for improvement, in a way that paid respectful heed to the lessons of the past. So far so good.

Of course this is the Michelle Obama who said earlier in this year that in her adult life--which you could date from 1982 or 1985; she was born, as she noted, in 1964, the year, though she did not note this, of the passage of our greatest civil rights law--she had never been proud of America, until her husband started winning caucuses and primaries. And on Monday night she said, plainly, "This is why I love this country." Did she wipe away the memory of her previous comment? I will leave it to you viewers of "Love" sounded a little unconvincing to me, a little like what she as well as the campaign managers knew she must say but her heart was not entirely in it. But maybe that's jaundiced. I'm curious to know what others think.

Clearly the Obama campaign saw this speech as Step One in humanizing a candidate who, as I have referenced above, is seen as a cerebral prodigy, as an inspiring orator, as (in the views of some) the object of adoration of a cult--but not as a guy we feel we know as a human being. Craig Robinson provided a picture of his brother-in-law as a basketball player--confident not cocky, competent but a team player. Michelle Robinson Obama put her husband in the perspective of the important men in her life. She portrayed her late father and her brother as male protectors. Her father, even when stricken with multiple sclerosis, "was our provider, our champion, our hero." Her portrait of his travails and determination I found genuinely moving: one of those heroes in everyday life who all around us but whom we seldom take the opportunity to see. Her brother (whom his Princeton contemporaries John McIntyre and Tom Bevan of describe as a good guy) she describes as "my mentor, my protector and my lifelong friend." She notes that they shared a bedroom as children, which to today's generation must sound like they were in destitute poverty; I only note that I shared (albeit two decades before) a bedroom with my sister until I was 11, as was common practice then in quite affluent households.

And is Barack Obama a male protector? A figure in command? Partly, but not exactly. Michelle Obama notes how he drove slowly, looking at his passengers in the rear view mirror, when he drove, very slowly, her and their first daughter home from the hospital where she was born. A nice vignette: he was really moved and he really cared. Like every parent, he was awed by the responsibility of taking care of this small and totally helpless human being about whom he cared more than anything in the world. Yet he responds less as a champion, less as a hero, less as a protector, and more like a guy who is scared and who is engaging, quite against his intentions, in behavior that is potentially dangerous. It's dangerous to drive too slow on city streets and even more (though I'm guessing this wasn't their route) on the Dan Ryan.

B: Michelle Obama has made her husband more human, and something more of a protector. Then came two minutes (or so) of an A. Michelle Obama, with her two daughters in tow, looks up to the video screen, at Barack Obama, in the home of some supporter in Kansas City whose name I cannot spell correctly. This is a reprise of the 1984 Republican National Convention, at which Nancy Reagan after delivering her speech looks up at a giant screen, and there is Ronnie, waving at her. But Barack Obama does more. He says (referencing a point made in his wife's narrative) that you can see why I asked her out so many times. A repartee ensues: the seven-year-old daughter (as seven-year-olds will do, especially when they sense they're in the spotlight) starts interrupting. Hes smiling throughout, and responding with ease. I give these two minutes (or so) an A, in terms of advancing the Obama candidacy; they're more important than the moving turn-over-the-torch rhetoric of Edward Kennedy, more convincing than the on-message but perhaps not entirely convincing speech of Michelle Obama.

All of the Obama's performance was planned, of course, carefully planned (they probably anticipated the seven-year-old's interruptions, or took no steps to suppress them). We can see what they're trying to do. I was interested to note that Michelle Obama, a product of the South Side of Chicago black ghetto (her mother refers, perhaps unnervingly to some viewers, of "the community") speaks with almost no regional accent. Not with the Midwestern flat As and hard Rs that you hear from metro Chicago native Hillary Clinton (or that you would hear from metro Detroit native me, if you saw me on Fox News); not with the stereotypical Northern black ghetto accent that are so familiar to residents of those metro areas. She slipped, only occasionally, by prefacing sentences with a "See" that is not in the text provided to the media and by stressing the first syllable in "Illinois."

I think we see where the Obama campaign is headed in this convention. The interesting question is whether it will get there.

By Michael Barone