A running diary of the first day of the Democratic National Convention, being held in Charlotte, N.C.
5:03 p.m. ET We’re 30 seconds in and there hasn’t been a single joke yet about an empty chair or an invisible president. DO YOU GUYS WANT TO WIN THIS ELECTION OR WHAT?
5:07 Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, invites American voters to follow every single minute of the convention on their phones using the party’s mobile app. No one does this.
5:11 Wasserman Schultz goes on to promise that the next three days will be “the most open political convention in history.” So when Joe Biden takes the stage Thursday night in a bathrobe, holding a vodka cooler and a bowl of keys, you can look back on this remark and think to yourself, “Well, in all fairness, they did warn me.”
5:35 It’s been bugging me and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but I just realized what’s different about the Democratic convention: Black people – they have some.
5:50 Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, talks about the choice facing Americans: “We must choose forward!” You lose again, sideways.
5:54 My 11-year-old boy sits down next to me. He watches for a couple minutes. “Last week, Romney was great and Obama sucked. This week, Obama is great and Romney sucks.” He gives me a look that says, “Sorry if I just blew your mind,” gets up and walks away.
6:11 The Republicans “entertained” people at their convention by hiring the world’s worst bar band to perform the world’s worst cover versions of songs that no one liked in the first place. The Democrats? They hired a DJ instead because they are TOTALLY DOWN WITH THE YOUNG PEOPLE, LOLZ. How’s it working out? A speaker just walked to the podium to the sounds of New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle. Another entered to Madonna’s Holiday. It’s still early but I’m willing to go out on a limb and predict that Barack Obama is now a lock to win the 1988 presidential election.
6:19 The theme of the evening’s speeches and videos is coming into focus: An economy was in peril and Barack Obama saved it! An auto industry was headed to ruin and Barack Obama rescued it! A fingernail grew long and Barack Obama clipped it! There is apparently nothing this man hasn’t succeeded in doing* (* does not apply to all the things he’s failed at doing).
7:01 Tim Kaine, former governor of Virginia, makes the evening’s first reference to President Obama “taking out bin Laden.” I’m not sure why but Americans almost always put it that way: He “took out bin Laden.” And I know this says more about me and the way my brain works than it says about anything else, but whenever someone talks about the President “taking out bin Laden” I always find myself picturing, even for just a split second, the two of them going out on a date. Sometimes it’s dinner and a movie. Other times? A nice picnic in an alpine meadow. I guess what I’m saying is, I’d be grateful if in future everyone could just go with: “We shot the dude in the face.”
7:03 Kaine also becomes the first speaker to reference “LGBT Americans.” This, of course, stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Americans – or, as the acronym is known among Republicans, “that yogurt place.”
7:11 The honour of trotting out the Most Dubious Straw Man of the Night falls to Harry Reid. The Senate majority leader goes on one of those “Some said…” rants in defence of the President. For instance, he says: “Some said he shouldn’t save Detroit.” And that’s fair enough – Mitt Romney and others considered the state of the auto industry and urged Obama to let capitalism take its course. But then Reid follows up with: “Some said he shouldn’t move heaven and earth to get bin Laden.” Who said that? WHO? Who was out there saying: “That guy who killed almost 3,000 Americans – let’s give him a mulligan on that one.”
7:17 Nancy Pelosi comes out accompanied by a large group of “the Democratic women of the House.” She repeatedly refers to them this way: “the Democratic women of the House.” It sounds like a reality TV series or an upscale bordello – or better still in the minds of Bravo TV executives, both. By the way, it’s an interesting reflection of America’s disdain for Congress that the two senior Democratic legislators were given speaking slots that put them not in prime time but in the far-less-watched-except-by-my-Grandma domain of Wheel of Fortune. Then again, hiding your liabilities and making the best of a bad situation has a long tradition in American politics. In 1988, for instance, organizers of the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta told nominee Michael Dukakis that the convention was in Tulsa.
7:21 The convention lets out a big cheer at the very mention of “birth control” – and another, even bigger one, at talk of “choice.” Listen, I’m a fan and everything, but still: in a time of continuing economic not-goodness, it’s kind of weird how frequently the speeches tonight have come back to the question of choice and the right of women to control their own baby-based decisions. And the tone is a little odd, too. There’s so much clapping and hooting at every mention of the sanctity of women’s reproductive rights. These people make abortions sound awesome.
7:28 Hey, look, it’s the 185th reference to moving America “forward.” Any counterpoint, diagonal?
7:44 We are introduced to Joseph Kennedy III, yet another Kennedy who is pursuing public life by running for Congress. Say what you will about the decline of the American economy – the United States remains utterly without peer in the highly efficient production of political scions.
7:50 In a savvy and effective move, the Democrats show a video of the late Ted Kennedy mopping the floor with a young Mitt Romney in a debate during their 1994 battle to represent Massachusetts in the Senate. “I am pro-choice,” Kennedy says, then adds a dig that’s even more relevant today. “My opponent is multiple choice.” Haha, Mitt – you just got schooled by a video ghost.
8:33 Even though several of the Democrat speakers are talented orators, the program begins to drag a bit. Possibly this is because of the relentlessly inspirational and upbeat nature of the speeches. Every issue is important. Everything is good. Veterans are good! Choice is good! Goodness is good! Healthcare is good! Better healthcare is gooder! That bedazzled American-flag baseball cap being worn by that crazy-looking woman from Delaware? Also good!
8:49 Governor Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island: “Should only the children of the wealthy have access to early education… and a college degree?” Wait, don’t tell me the answer: I KNOW THIS ONE.
8:58 Ted Strickland, former governor of Ohio, arrives with a clear message: “I. HAVE. COME. HERE. TONIGHT. TO. YELL. WORDS. AT. YOU.” Over the course of the next 15 minutes, Gov. CAPS LOCK delivers the most aggressive attack on Mitt Romney that we’ll hear tonight. I missed part of it because blood pooled in my ears. “The auto industry is standing today!! The middle class is standing today!! Ohio is standing today!! America is standing strong today!! Someone please turn me down!! I have become stuck at this absurd volume and unsustainable emotional pitch!! I can’t stop speaking this way!! I’m going to sound ridiculous when later tonight I order my dinner using this voice!! I’ll have the Porterhouse!! See what I mean?!!”
9:03 Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served as President Obama’s first chief of staff, swiftly assuages any worries that he may have lost or misplaced his ego en route: “There was no blueprint for how to manual for preventing in global financial meltdown, an auto crisis, two wars and a great recession all at the same time. Believe me, if it existed, I would have found it.” Got that? He would have found it. And then he would have made Obama look good without taking any of the credit except for later when he took all of the credit.
Emanuel’s speech sounds like he actually wrote it himself in that it is a) self-aggrandizing, and b) terrible. He makes reference to a crisis landing “like a thud on the Oval Office desk” – I think he means “with a thud,” but maybe “thud” is Chicago slang for “heavy object.” And then Rahm pretty much loses it toward the end and suddenly his speech starts sounding like that “dark and stormy night” novel that Snoopy spent years trying to write on top of his doghouse. “When the fog of uncertainty that surrounds the crisis storms into the White House…” Listen, I don’t want to come off as a stickler but can fog actually storm the White House – or anywhere? Doesn’t fog’s speed pretty much top out at “drifting with purpose?”
9:26 Kal Penn, the actor and Obama aide, comes out to encourage young people to vote in the November election. He gets off a nice crack in which he praises the “invisible man in the chair” for his accomplishments. All in all, I’d give his speech decent marks – but I do have to dock him a point or two for remaining silent on a pressing issue of importance to millions of Americans: Why did you kill yourself on House?
9:31 For those of you scoring at home, President Barack Obama is now responsible for having saved the U.S. economy, the American auto industry, the entire middle class, Medicare, America’s global reputation, Harrison Ford’s wife in Frantic and the last dance for me.
9:33 Lily Ledbetter, the woman for whom President Obama’s fair pay legislation was named, gives a speech recounting her time as the manager at a tire plant in Alabama – and the realization that she was getting paid less than her male colleagues. Sassy and sharp-tongued, she gets off the line of the night at Mitt Romney: “Twenty-three cents an hour might not seem like much to a guy with a Swiss bank account…” There’s been a lot of talk about Mitt’s Swiss bank accounts this evening. This is because Swiss bank accounts sound inherently sinister and for only the fancy-panted, just like Cayman Islands tax shelters and Belgian waffles.
9:46 Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts, declares this “the election of a lifetime” – making it the 11th election of a lifetime of my lifetime. He goes on to deliver a big ol’ super-sweaty speech. Delegates are so into it that it takes them a moment to realize that he’s actually started to scold them.
Patrick: “It’s time for Democrats to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe!”
Delegates: “Wooooo-hooooo! Woooo–…. wait, what?”
By the way, Patrick’s speech lasts about 11 minutes. Paul Ryan immediately declares that he could have delivered it in under 7:30.
9:58 The governor of Maryland becomes at least the third speaker to make the exact same crack about how under Obamacare, “no longer does being a woman qualify as a pre-existing medical condition.” It was clever the first one times.
10:01 “Maryland always chooses to move forward.” – Gov. Martin O’Malley. “Hmm, that’s really thought-provoking and something that interests me.” – No one
10:12 San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro begins his address by talking about the great adversity he’s faced, such as a) growing up poor, and b) being forced to walk on stage to a Black Eyed Peas song just now. The governor gives a very nice speech but I suspect his technique would begin to grate upon prolonged exposure. He has what you might describe as a Nirvana speaking style: LOUD. Soft. LOUD. He says a number of things with gusto, then abruptly adopts a Dramatic Whisper. Here’s an example: “The American Dream is NOT A SPRINT or EVEN A MARATHON… but a relay.” It’s effective the FIRST FEW TIMES and QUITE EFFECTIVE but eventually it seems… overly calculated.
(Scroll ahead to 3:07 to see a different example: “…neither is opportunity.”)
10:39 Greeted with rapturous applause, Michelle Obama delivers what pretty much everyone acknowledges to be a masterful speech – though one that presents a unique challenge to fact-checkers. “Today, I love my husband even more than I did four years ago,” she says. Hmm, sounds like typical Washington hyperbole – let’s see you prove it by making out in front of us a little.
So the First Lady was terrific and everything, though perhaps we could have done with an abbreviated version of the We Were Poor section of her remarks, which seemed to last about 10 minutes and existed entirely to remind people that Mitt Romney wasn’t. Among the revelations: Barack Obama’s “prized possession” as a university student was “a coffee table he found in a Dumpster!” He wore his shoes a half-size too small because he couldn’t afford new ones! The mean old man said no when l’il Barack came forward with his bowl and asked for a second helping of gruel!
But then, that’s American political oratory, isn’t it? You don’t get a prime-time slot on the big stage if you’re not willing to Give Something of Yourself; if you’re not willing to use your humble past to advance your ambitious future. And you do have to have a humble past – or the gall to appropriate one. You need those dark moments, that whiff of despair and those working-class roots – with at least one relative who worked three jobs OR three relatives to worked one very hard job (preferably a miner; a mill worker will suffice in a pinch).
“We were so young, so in love and so in debt,” she says. You could tell the First Lady knew she was on a roll by the way she started overdoing that little fake stutter – which she uses (often very effectively) to make her words seem off the cuff and unscripted – and droppin’ her g’s. “And… and if… if our parents and grandparents could toil and… and struggle for us, if they could raise beams of steel to the sky, send a man to the moon, connect the world with a touch of a button, then surely we can keep on sacrificin’ and buildin’ for our own kids and grandkids, right?”
It’s a little over the top, sure. But that’s how you go about electin’ a President.