The New York Daily News decided, during Michelle Obama’s speech around 10 p.m. EST, to switch their cover from “ASS WARFARE!,” featuring protestors at the Democratic National Convention, to “THE LADY IS HER CHAMP,” with a big photo of the First Lady and a Hillary 2016 logo emblazoned on it. If anything was an indicator of victory for the DNC, it was that course correction in narrative — from a party rife with dissent to a party united behind a charismatic leader. Of course, that leader wasn’t exactly the leader this DNC is about. But settle in: We’re just at the end of act one.
All day Monday, the start to the DNC was plagued with controversy, most of which boggle the limits of plausibility. A cache of hacked emails that revealed former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s inept efforts to derail Bernie Sanders from winning the primary led to a kerfuffle where the “showrunner” of the DNC ended up needing to be replaced last minute. (Wasserman Schultz was replaced with Marcia Fudge for the convention and vice chair Donna Brazile for the rest of the campaign.) The hackers may or may not have been Russian agents working a long game, following the unlikely lodestar of a Donald Trump alliance with Vladimir Putin.
This led to convention bedlam. Speakers were booed by anti-Hillary Clinton delegates. Not even Bernie Sanders himself was immune to the heckling, as the Vermont senator attempted to convince his base to embrace Hillary. Then his wife Jane was caught saying a sentence on a hot mic that may or may not have been a call to action.
Following a week where Democrats tossed off any number of holier-than-thou statements about Trump’s Republican National Convention, the first day of the DNC was a rather embarrassing display of disunity. Adding to the chaos, the night ran over into late-night, with Sanders’ crucial and grudging endorsement of Clinton coming in only after 11 p.m., not sooner. Awkwardly scripted banter between Al Franken (“I’m With Her”) and Sarah Silverman (“Feeling the Bern”) segued into Paul Simon playing, in a musical decision I can only describe as “corny” — “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” If it weren’t for a particularly devastating line from Silverman and the distinctly conciliatory nature of the speeches, it would have been hard to locate the differences between the Democrats and their opponents’ convention last week.
But the DNC had the trump card: FLOTUS. During her speech, there was a great deal of hyperbole tossed about on Twitter about how her speech Monday night may well have been the best convention speech in recent memory, and maybe one of the finest American political speeches, period. Numerous commentators, including David Axelrod on CNN, contended that her delivery was stronger than her husband’s much-vaunted rhetorical style. From my perspective, what made Obama’s speech so strong was how personal, humanizing, and decent it was: She discussed Trump without ever even mentioning his name, and used his attacks to pivot towards how she thought about raising her daughters well. The result was moving and galvanizing, an appeal to the heart and a call to arms that this campaign has generally desperately lacked.
Before she spoke, it didn’t seem, necessarily, that it was going to be Obama’s night. Elizabeth Warren spoke directly after her, and Cory Booker, directly before; both are charismatic politicians in their own right. Following Warren was Sanders, to deliver the final nail in the coffin on his campaign. Probably every viewer of the DNC who could have been swayed by someone’s speechifying this evening. Booker offered a kind of Barack Obama-lite; Warren, a history professor with no tolerance for half-truths; Sanders, the only slightly convinced convert.
But of the four closing speeches — while Sanders tamed his supporters, Warren fielded the accusations of betrayal, and Booker found himself stumbling to find his rhythm over chanting, only Obama’s wasn’t audibly interrupted or booed. Reporters inside the room observed that any vocal dissent was hushed very quickly. Perhaps it was the star power of the First Lady; perhaps it was the modicum of respect granted her position. But Obama made the notion of party unity feel possible, after a whole day rife with dissent. As a standalone speech, it was galvanizing and extraordinary. As part of a systematic attempt to convince the Democratic Party to back Hillary Clinton, it was a linchpin. And in terms of watching television on Monday night, it was an extraordinary moment of watching a live audience be actually transformed by something. The consensus of the room seemed to be waffling in real time; instead of the empty rhetoric of foregone conclusions, each speech appeared to really be trying to convince someone of something.
Obama won the evening, but she won because there were stakes at the all. The ruffled feathers of the day — and the looming specter, for many Democrats, of Trump — cast her speech, and all the speeches tonight, in a more dramatic light. And though it sounds trivial to cast this election that decides the fate of the country in purely dramatic terms, it’s always nice when the day’s television follows a neat story arc, from conflict to climax to resolution.