In the summer of 1960, Norman Mailer took an assignment to cover the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. This was when conventions could still be the scenes of smoky, unpredictable battle, and on this occasion the improbably junior senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy, who had won most of the primaries, was forced to fend off last-minute challenges from the Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson, and from the Party’s nominee in 1952 and 1956, Adlai Stevenson. Then, having overcome the opposition of Eleanor Roosevelt and the plots of the Party elders, Kennedy turned to Johnson and asked him to be his running mate against Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Mailer wrote his article in a mythmaking frame of mind—the title was “Superman Comes to the Supermarket”—and he was determined to invest his protagonist and the times with the maximum sense of destiny. Senator Kennedy, he wrote, “was unlike any politician who had ever run for President in the history of the land, and if elected he would come to power in a year when America was in danger of drifting into a profound decline.”
The Democratic Convention last week in Denver was not the “pig-rooting, horse-snorting, band-playing, voice-screaming medieval get-together” of Mailer’s yesteryear. But, no matter how frictionless the stagecraft and Hellenic the actual stage, the sense of historic moment in Denver was far more profound than it was in Los Angeles forty-eight years ago. The nominee, Barack Obama, and the would-be-but-not-quite nominee, Hillary Clinton, did battle with central taboos of Presidential politics: Obama, of course, is the first African-American to capture a major-party nomination; Clinton is the first woman to contend seriously for the Presidency, winning a primary even on the day she lost the big prize. Obama’s nomination and Clinton’s near-miss are, in their way, belated fulfillments of the promises of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, and the Nineteenth Amendment. No banality of cable-news commentary—not even the mad bickering among the anchors on MSNBC—could eclipse the meaning and the emotion of their prolonged race, the Party’s dramatic reconciliation, and Obama’s fiercely eloquent acceptance speech.
The Convention suggested possibility and hope even with the Bush Administration, arguably the worst in history, still in power, and with the Republican nominee’s poll ratings seeming to pop precisely when he resorts to the tactics of his old nemesis, Karl Rove. The sense of national drift is no longer a novelist’s overheated conceit. Obama was careful to keep the mood focused on better days and not signal despair, but, as he made plain, American decline, in economic, political, and moral terms, is an undeniable diagnosis.
The success of Obama’s convention in Denver was of a piece with the nineteen months of the Obama campaign. It was a disciplined, well-paced, sometimes moving production; no one stepped out of line and there were only a few bombs (e.g., Mark Warner). The curtain-raising media narrative about the Clintons turned out to be so preposterously inflated that it allowed both Bill and Hillary to execute easy maneuvers of rhetorical and emotional jujitsu, repairing his reputation of late for narcissistic resentment and hers for a confounded petulance in defeat. Edward Kennedy magisterially demanded the endurance of the Party by bravely displaying his own. Michelle Obama tore up the wing-nut caricatures of herself as a closet radical by revealing, without exploiting, the irresistible charms of her children and delivering a warm, genuine, and impassioned introduction to her husband. John Kerry was uncommonly forceful, even alighting upon an important subject left alone by Obama: the shame of American torture and the need to shut down the prison at Guantánamo Bay. The Ohio governor, Ted Strickland, got off the best, unheard line of the Convention when he said that, unlike George H. W. Bush, who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple, George W. was born on third base and stole second. Even Montana’s stoutly appealing governor, Brian Schweitzer, performed with a cuff-shooting, shoulder-shrugging panache. Who knew that Buddy Hackett was a Catholic rancher in a bolo tie?
Obama’s decision to deliver his speech outdoors in the vast, in-season corral of the Denver Broncos was clearly meant to “play big” in theatrical terms as well as lay down, for the historically minded, mystic chords of memory evoking Kennedy’s “New Frontier” acceptance speech, at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, and Roosevelt’s “rendezvous with destiny” speech, at his renomination in 1936, at Franklin Field, in Philadelphia. The Greek columns onstage summoned Soldier Field, in Chicago, the White House colonnade, and the Lincoln Memorial and Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s “I Have a Dream” speech, if not Demosthenes rallying the Athenians against the Macedonian threat. Team Obama does not do modest Off-Broadway productions.
The imperative for historical change was the nominee’s theme in Denver, as it has been since he announced his candidacy, nineteen months ago, in Springfield:
Tonight, I say to the people of America, to Democrats and Republicans and Independents across this great land—enough! This moment—this election—is our chance to keep, in the twenty-first century, the American promise alive. Because next week, in Minnesota, the same party that brought you two terms of George Bush and Dick Cheney will ask this country for a third. And we are here because we love this country too much to let the next four years look just like the last eight. On November 4th, we must stand up and say: “Eight is enough.”
Obama did not follow the rhetorical lead of the presidents he invoked by name and symbol. At Franklin Field, F.D.R. made reference to “the immortal Dante” and the weighing of “divine justice”; at the Coliseum, J.F.K. quoted the prophet Isaiah and touched on Cromwell, Henry II, and Lloyd George; in Denver, Obama restrained his penchant for rhetorical filigree. (For the culturally disadvantaged, “Eight Is Enough” is a reference to a Dick Van Patten sitcom of the late seventies.) And yet his moments of homey sloganeering worked, especially in combination with his rigorous attacks on the Republican record and a newly specific sense of where he wants to lead the country. His call to arms and unity was plaintive and affecting: “We are a better country than this.”
Obama has been more moving at the lectern—at the Convention in Boston four years ago, when he relied mainly on the story of his modest, yet remarkable, multicultural upbringing; at the victory party after the breakthrough win in Iowa, last January—but he has never described himself and his political vision with more clarity. In order to win the votes of the unconvinced, he could not allow “change” to remain an airy mantra. (If anything, he risked the specificity and length of a Clintonian State of the Union address.) Obama was also newly and surprisingly direct in his assault on John McCain—whose policy differences with the Bush Administration have narrowed to the vanishing point—and even questioned his opponent’s “temperament and judgment.”
In 1960, Mailer described Kennedy in terms that recall caricatures of Obama: J.F.K. “seemed at times like a young professor whose manner was adequate for the classroom, but whose mind was off in some intricacy of the Ph.D. thesis he was writing.” Obama set aside his occasional lofty reserve and gave what for him was a barnburner. And yet his talent, particularly evident in Denver, is to transform righteous anger into meliorist fervor, a tone that could draw votes in Colorado and Virginia, as well as in New York and California.
For eight years, we’ve had a President who has a faith-based relationship with his own “gut,” a serene confidence undisturbed by reality. Obama, emerging as a candidate to succeed him, has demonstrated distinct evidence of a first-class intelligence and a first-class temperament. That seemed to leave experience—the length of Obama’s résumé—as a Republican angle of attack. Then came Friday morning. On his seventy-second birthday, John McCain selected as his running mate Sarah Palin, a social conservative who spent the nineties embroiled in the civic affairs of Wasilla, Alaska (pop. 6,715), won the Alaska governorship only two years ago, and has zero experience in national politics and world affairs—a baffling rejoinder to the assuring nomination of Joe Biden and to the historic achievement of Barack Obama.