Thursday, November 18, 2010
THE 2008 DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION: Barack Obama
It is a positive step forward that we’ve nominated for the first time a black man to be the President of the United States. The written or unwritten rules prohibiting such a man from running for the office to begin with should never have existed in the first place. Because of that I don’t want to deride the accomplishments of Barack Obama, though I do wish to be direct concerning my observations of the convention that took place between August 25th and August 28th. Like most conventions this one was mainly theatre, but I don’t place much blame on the candidates, the organizers of the events, or even the keynote speakers at the convention for this. They are trying to get themselves or someone else elected, and they believe strongly enough in their cause that they will mostly do what is necessary to accomplish their goal. What turns a convention into an endless repetition of platitudes, flag waving and one-upmanship is the attention on the speakers garnered by the true believers and the press corps in attendance at the event. If there was even a bit of dissent among the audience, there might be a more questioning attitude of the listeners towards what they are hearing. And if the press really behaved like a free press rather than someone paid to do someone else’s bidding, maybe the public would be educated about what the politicians do or do not say in their public addresses.
With the exception of the speech of Mark Warner (who spoke the first night of the convention and whose keynote speech was overshadowed by the tribute to Ted Kennedy and the earlier speech of Michelle Obama), I heard one journalist or another describe the speeches of every keynote speaker as “extraordinary.” Even former President Bill Clinton’s speech, which to me sounded less polished than usual for him, was said to have been “the speech of a lifetime.” Warner probably overstressed his own capitalistic success as the manufacturer of cell phones – a business entrepreneurship that netted him a lifetime income of something around $300 million dollars. Most Democrats are more comfortable in describing their struggles rather than their success. Now a tribute concerning Ted Kennedy is also a bit disconcerting in many respects to such a gathering. Obama and his followers want to be associated with the Kennedy legacy (remember Camelot), but they do not want to be labeled aristocratic in their leanings. In fact, besides Warner, every keynote speaker talked about their humble beginnings. And even though they feel sorry for Kennedy concerning the malignant cancer he is suffering through, Kennedy’s expulsion from Harvard for cheating on an exam, the failed marriage, his appetites, and his leaving the scene of an accident after driving off a bridge and killing Mary Jo Kopechne are hardly the kind of things the Democratic Party wants to celebrate concerning one of their longtime leaders.
It’s not only politicians whose speeches received outlandish praise. Michelle Obama’s speech was also referred to as “extraordinary” by members of the press. The speech got off to a slow start with Ms. Obama making a few mild attempts at humor, but then the lawyer from Princeton really began moving the audience with a few selected banalities about marriage and motherhood, and how she saw her husband sacrifice for the public good. She apparently wanted to show how the Obama family members were not elitists and had more in common with the rest of America than any of us could ever imagine. It was our inability to get to know her husband rather than the positions he stood for, she seemed to say, that kept some of us from supporting him in his presidential bid. Never mind that some people might actually disagree with him on the issues. It was as good of a speech by the spouse of a candidate as any other speech given by a spouse in a similar situation. I’m just not sure why tradition now states that a spouse must give such a speech to begin with because no one in the organizing committee really wants to have them say anything of substance.
On the second day of the convention, we heard Hillary Rodham-Clinton give the keynote speech. For someone that had already criticized Barack Obama for his inability to handle the duties of a President, she did the best that she could to now throw her support behind him. True, she didn’t say that he was now ready for the position, but doing that may very well have come across as disingenuous. But she did make a plea to her followers to support Barack Obama because their loyalty should be to the wounded veteran, the ill mother without health insurance, the income earner that lost his pension plan, and the other Americans still struggling to survive. (It was interesting that she spoke of her pride in being a mother and a senator, but for some reason forgot to mention her role as a wife.)
Bill Clinton came on stage on Wednesday evening right before Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden spoke. Unlike what Hillary Clinton failed to say, the former President did say that Obama was ready for the job to be President. Obviously, he was disappointed that his wife was not the nominee, but he came, so he said, to accept Obama as the best possible alternate. Clinton gave a decent speech (though not even close to one of his best), but his reputation (deserved or undeserved) preceded him. Most critics of the man perceive him as someone that argues smoothly and plausibly about something that probably will in the end benefit himself. In this case (according to those critics), he was probably looking towards 2012 where his wife, Hillary, would have another shot towards being the Democratic nominee. To criticize Obama at this juncture would in essence burn all of the Clintons’ bridges.
Joe Biden gave probably the best keynote speech of the convention (and I hope that this one was not plagiarized like some of the speeches he has given in the past), though it was largely negative. Biden continues to remind me of the career politician whose slickness (like his hair dye) never quite washes away. Like every speaker in the convention, Biden saluted John McCain’s service in the air force during the Viet Nam war. He also praised McCain the maverick Senator, though he said McCain the Presidential candidate was now behaving in a way contradictory to his former self. In this, he may be correct. However, like many other speakers at the convention, he made the point of saying that McCain voted 90 percent of the time with President George W. Bush. Actually, since Bush never officially casts any votes with John McCain (there being a difference between the executive branch and those in the legislative branch), none of the speakers really defined what they meant when they said this. Whatever criteria happened to be used in coming up with this statistic, to put matters into context it would be interesting to find out how many times Biden and Obama also voted with President Bush. No matter. It was a good sound byte. What the Democrats set out to do by castigating the Bush administration and then relegating John McCain to the status of a George W. Bush clone was hinted at in the Bill Clinton speech and then spelled out in the Joe Biden address. Both painted living in contemporary America as being a fairly dismal place, and both took the easy route by blaming it all on the Bush administration. Obviously, many people have already decided to vote for or against Barack Obama, but these speeches were for the benefit of the undecided. Now if you bought into the Biden interpretation of America, probably you would then decide to vote for Obama. But the problem with Biden’s version is that it is overstated and comes close to making America sound like it is irretrievably broken. Biden talks about riding home everyday on the train and looking out at the homes in Scranton and wondering how all of these people must be suffering. Except not everyone he saw was probably actually suffering, or at least suffering in a way that Barack Obama would be able to remedy. Some individuals – and especially those with a sense of history and knowledge of other cultures throughout the world – know that living in contemporary America is by no means the worst situation that one of us could be in. Biden is either a pessimist or a Republican-bashing opportunist. Biden never once suggests that America is strong or even potentially strong despite the shortcomings of the current administration or gives us a hint as to why an Obama-Biden ticket could bring the nation to any greater heights. That lack of ability to project hope and optimism in one sense or the other sunk other Democratic Presidential campaigns in 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000 and 2004. Of recent Democratic nominations, only Bill Clinton as nominee brought about that sense that government initiative could be a complement rather than a necessity for any kind of individual success of an American citizen.
There were other speakers, many not considered important or memorable enough as to be quoted at any length in the newspapers. Al Gore, for example, spoke on Thursday evening as a lead-up to the Obama acceptance speech. Al Gore made mention about how the status quo was quaking at the thought of an Obama presidency while neglecting to mention that he, Al Gore, was also a member of the status quo. Gore spent most of the speech speaking about his favorite topic: global warming and/or climate change, whichever label happens to be most fashionable at the moment. Gore went so far as to say the Arctic polar cap will at some point completely melt during a particular summer in the next President’s administration. God forbid that someone should suggest to Gore that the matter may need further study – especially after such an announcement was just made. Harry Reid also spoke. Anything Harry Reid said would not be remembered with or without quotes by the media. Governor Brian Schweitzer got some laughs by being his folksy self, which earned him the title of being one of the party’s “rising stars.” And Nancy Pelosi asked that both the Vice Presidential and Presidential nominees be nominated by acclimation. This helped avoid an embarrassing roll call vote leading to some of Hillary Clinton’s supporters asking for her nomination instead of that of Barack Obama.
So finally, we came to the Barack Obama acceptance speech in Mile High Stadium in Denver to a live audience of 80,000 people and a television audience of approximately 38 million citizens. “This election is not about me but about you,” Obama said. Frankly, the whole stadium idea may have turned out to be a mistake. If, as Obama claimed, he was not seeking the status of being a celebrity, he may have wanted to accept his party’s nomination of him as President in a more humble manner. That the stadium was supposed to be open to all that wanted to celebrate in Obama’s nomination was belied by the fact that many of those in attendance had to pay as much as $3,000 for a ticket to get in. In his muddled history of his ancestors, he strives to leave the impression that he was from humble origins and that his mother, father, uncle and grandfather were his heroes. Yet he was perfectly willing to let those in the entertainment world such as Sheryl Crow, Steven Spielberg and Stevie Wonder prostitute their talent in support of him rather than in support of some universal charity. Allegedly, Obama gave such a moving speech that even Oprah Winfrey “cried her eye lashes off.” Many in the audience reacted to the presence of Obama in the same way as fourteen year olds react at a Hanna Montana concert. Most other voters I think would prefer that Obama appear presidential than seek out the status of being a Rock star. There were, of course, hints of this earlier in the convention that all attention should be focused squarely on Obama. His face appeared on the teleprompter after his wife’s speech and Obama personally showed up on stage after Biden gave his address. Unfortunately, the unnecessary insertion of his presence at those times probably took away momentum created by the two speeches.
Obama stated that his “specifics” were to cut taxes for 95% of the working class (many who already do not pay taxes), end dependence on Mideast oil in ten years by making improvements to automobile technology and investing in new energy sources, rebuild the military, build new partnerships among the many nations, pursue Bin Laden, and invest in education, technology and healthcare. In short, he promised everything. Unfortunately, he never says how he was going to do any of this, and I doubt even the most ardent of his believers felt that he could accomplish what he laid out. Again, most of the commentators did not pay close attention to what Obama said, but rather were taken in by the manner he delivered his speech to a delirious crowd. This was especially true concerning those aspects of the speech that dealt with foreign affairs. Focusing in on these areas, some commentators remarked that Obama’s speech was “stern” and “tough.” More likely, the candidate that had stated he was opposed the Iraqi war from the outset came across as acting like he was stern and tough concerning military matters.
As a disclaimer, if I seem unduly critical of the Democratic convention, I predict that I will not be anymore impressed with the Republican National Convention (which I intend to write about) that is scheduled to take place from September 1st through the 4th in St. Paul, Minnesota. If I sound critical, I also want to appear fair in my observations. I’m not supporting one candidate over the other by saying all of this. I do not plan to contribute any money to either campaign (and I never have contributed any money to a political campaign), nor do I think that either candidate is in dire need of my money. Also, though I will vote I doubt that my vote will make much of a difference for whomever I cast my ballot. Minnesota, where I reside, has cast its electoral votes for every Democratic candidate since 1976. I expect that Minnesota will go for Barack Obama in November.
Personally, I find all such modern conventions to be contrived and the 2008 Democratic National convention was no exception. Every convention has had its weaknesses, but it used to be the conventions were less orchestrated and we were not always sure who the nominee would be until the candidates fought it out on the convention floor. At least a portion of the press and the supporters of a particular candidate need to become less docile and demand substance from politicians. Nevertheless, the two-party system still works. We continue to have some constitutional rights that have not been completely eroded away (no matter what the party not in power happens to say). We still have free elections that allow us to oust a leader at the very most four years later. And the system we have with the two parties dominating at least insures that we probably won’t have a leader with anything less than forty percent of the vote. It could be much worse.
POSTSCRIPT: After the Democratic euphoria continued to erupt from the Denver convention, John McCain tried to squash the excitement by making one of the most unusual choices for his Vice Presidential candidate ever made when he chose the almost unknown governor from Alaska, Sarah Palin. Just as so many commentators referred to speeches of the keynote speakers at the Democratic convention to be “extraordinary,” many conservative journalists and bloggers have referred to McCain’s pick as being “brilliant.” The pick was not so much brilliant as it was a very big gamble by McCain. McCain wanted a Washington outsider, one with conservative credentials, and a woman that may be able to bring in those discontented that Hillary Clinton was not the Democratic nominee. It may be completely unrealistic to expect Palin to not make a major gaff under the extreme scrutiny she will face in the coming weeks. The standards will be set high for her. And the choice will remove the impetus for McCain to continue his onslaught on Obama’s perceived inexperience to run for the office of President seeing that he chose as a running mate someone that has only served as governor little more than two years. It is yet to be seen if this choice will bring into question McCain’s own better judgment.