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Why the Little Moments Were the Most Important at the 2016 Democratic National Convention

Special Moments During the 2016 Democratic
John Minchillo/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The 2016 Democratic National Convention will go down in history as the one in which Hillary Clinton became the first woman nominated for president by a major political party.

This veteran journalist won’t soon forget being there to see a powerful woman stand in the same place where FDR and JFK and even William Jennings Bryan stood. You didn’t have to be a Democrat, or a woman, or even an American to feel that the world had changed forever.

That may be what I remember most about this, my ninth political convention. But it may not be. Because there was also the soaring rhetoric of Michelle and Barack Obama, bringing us back to the audacity of hope, to our highest aspirations, and to 2008, another moment when a political convention and a general election made history.

And there was the golden oratory of Bill Clinton, the happy old warrior pulling one more hugely ingratiating speech from somewhere in his politician’s soul. The 42nd president whispered. He roared. He made us believe how much he still loves Hillary. And he probably even convinced a few skeptics that they should love (or at least vote for) her, too.

The primetime memories of Philadelphia will not soon dim. But on the flight home to Los Angeles, they were crowded in my mind with other sounds and images.

“A powerful woman stood in the same place where FDR and JFK and even William Jennings Bryan stood. You didn’t have to be a Democrat, or a woman, or even an American to feel that the world had changed forever.”

The Rev. William J. Barber II, a Protestant minister in North Carolina, got the convention rocking on Thursday night, well before Clinton’s historic acceptance speech. In rising volume and spiraling cadences, he described how Trump had put democracy on life-support with his gloom-and-doom prophecies and his slams on immigrants and Muslims. Barber urged Americans to vote, and to return the U.S. to the true spirit of “a brown-skinned, Palestinian Jew named Jesus Christ.” He described our need to become “moral defibrillators,” prepared to shock the heart of America back into the proper rhythm after the damage Trump had done.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was one in a parade of Republicans and former Republicans who said they would vote for a Democrat for the first time ever in their fervor to defeat Trump. After Trump’s dystopian message from Cleveland a week earlier, the Democrats pounded away again and again that America is “better together.”

Sometimes events around the periphery of political conventions leave the biggest impressions. I could hardly tell you what happened at my first: the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego. The most memorable thing might have been the fireworks show put on by The San Diego Union-Tribune. Newspapers were then in their heyday, and the U-T could afford to put $1 million of pyrotechnics into the night sky.

I know that the lingering memories of last week will be small moments, the intangibles that make each political house party its own. Philly 2016 was all about steamy weather and thundershowers that seemed timed to descend every time we had to make the half-mile walk from the security perimeter to the front doors of the Wells Fargo Arena.

The 80% humidity and repeated downpours had even the most well-coiffed TV hosts scrambling for makeovers. And there was the tall, gangly busker with a row of missing teeth who stood on a downtown street corner and delivered a rendition of “Amazing Grace” as sweet as any Al Green ever laid down.

I shared a late-night dinner with attorney Gloria Allred and heard how, as a woman who had married and had a child before she graduated from college, she never dreamed she would go on to finish near the top of her law school class. And I stopped to chat with former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, still more than two years removed from a likely run for California governor, but pumping hands in the Wells Fargo Center like the election was next Tuesday.

“In a mark of how time and history speed quickly along, a stooped old man and his wife ambled ever so slowly toward their seats. Barely anyone on the floor gave Michael and Kitty Dukakis a second glance.”

On the arena concourse, Bernie Sanders delegates wearing green Robin Hood caps made uneasy peace with Hillary Clinton delegates in blue “I’m With Her” T-shirts. And in a mark of how time and history speed quickly along, a stooped old man and his wife ambled ever so slowly toward their seats. Barely anyone on the floor gave Michael and Kitty Dukakis a second glance.

As Carole King crooned “You’ve Got a Friend” on the convention’s final night, and then Sheila E.’s band pounded out a syncopated beat, the bedraggled conventioneers formed long lines for $10 hoagies to provide the fuel needed to get through the hours of speeches to come.

There were so many chants of “USA! USA!” and hosannahs to the U.S. military that it felt like I had plopped right down at the 2012 Convention in Tampa — the one held by the Republicans.

For all the air of celebration, there was also sadness for what has been lost. The threat of terrorism meant that the Philadelphia arena was fenced off and armored, separating it from the City of Brotherly Love like a fortress. The daily struggle just to get to the giant black fence that ringed the Wells Fargo Center will stay with me, unfortunately, almost as much as President Obama’s ringing rhetoric.

There were endless putdowns of the Republican nominee. Attendees would hear that Donald Trump is everything from a “con man” to a “dangerous demagogue,” and that he cares about a constituency of only one — himself. There were invocations of another convention: the Constitutional Convention of 1787, held, reportedly, during another sweltering Philadelphia summer.

It was all supposed to sum up Our Way of Life. But nothing on the convention floor — not even the stirring tribute by Khizr Khan, who, many of us now know, lost his son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, in a suicide bombing in Bagdad 12 years ago — could bring it all together like the cab driver who took me to the train station when the convention was done, and helped me track down the rental car I somehow had misplaced.

A Pakistani Muslim, the cabby described how he had arrived in the U.S. 30 years ago and invested his life savings in a Pakistani/Indian restaurant, then sold it and helped put his two children through college. Now his daughter is on the verge of becoming a doctor. His children give him great pride.

“They help other people. They give what they can,” said the driver, who declined to give his name. “All they want is to work hard. For them, that is America.”

He remembers no time better then when Bill Clinton was president — and so he will vote for his wife.

“For me, he was the best,” he said, and paused before asking a question: “Maybe it can happen again?”