Meg Whitman spoke for only a fleeting segment of Monday night’s opening of the Democratic National Convention. And yet the Quibi corporate leader and Republican politician’s presence seemed emblematic of the night, in at least two ways: One, she is not in fact a Democrat, and yet was given a chunk of the evening, however small — much like peers in the GOP, including former Ohio Governor John Kasich, who spoke more expansively. The night wasn’t fully given over to Republicans, but it was significantly given over to randomness, unfolding with a sort of anti-logic that caused Whitman’s Opposite Day booking to make a sort of backwards sense. What better convention to bring out Whitman than the one comprised entirely of Quick Bites?
For most of its run, the opening night of the DNC — intended to have been held in Milwaukee before, now, being held in a format not unlike Zoom — evinced a skittering lack of confidence that seemed perhaps surprising. The evening brought together a mix of elected officials and “real Americans,” giving neither the chance to consistently make their case. Until the evening’s closing minutes, with complimentary speeches by Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama, the broadcast hopped from person to person and theme to theme, not giving the time or space to any speaker to allow their thoughts to blossom into anything more than a sort of unfortunate randomness.
This is not to discount the travails of the citizens brought into the proceedings by emcee Eva Longoria Bastón. But it is, a bit, to discount whomever among the party brass had the bright idea to give the proceedings a celebrity host with the unfortunate task of keeping this train barreling through a new stop every three minutes, creating the appearance of a celebrity talking significantly more, and perhaps talking over, the people whose challenges she’s meant to be hearing out. (Subsequent nights will see Tracee Ellis Ross, Kerry Washington, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus attempt to surmount this role; Longoria could not.) These bits, early in the show’s two-hour run, rubbed up against video pieces that seemed to make hazy, unfocused arguments about the fundamental goodness and kindness of Americans — ones whose fundamental optimism raised the question of why the Democrats are trying to install a new president at all, given how sunny things seem in the America they depicted — as well as music performances, including by Maggie Rogers on the coast of Maine, introduced by that state’s Senate candidate.
All this and Meg Whitman too! It was indeed an evening whose sheer willingness to reinvent every few minutes lent a sense of dynamism. But simply because the night literally could shift in the ways that it did — that there were some production errors but no massive crises, that quite so many speakers fit into two hours — does not mean that doing so made for a success. While everyone, including and especially members of the media, has seemed bored of the conventions’, well, conventionality in the past several cycles (that’s rather the point of the norm-shattering Trump ascendancy), the events’ big staging can often tend to elevate somewhat small ideas. The Democrats’ giving most speakers a minimum of time and the barest connective tissue from moment to moment did not foster the sense that this was a party with a coherent line of attack on Trump. Even those speakers given a bit more time to make their case — Kasich with an anti-Trump Republican case that didn’t work in 2016, Andrew Cuomo with a fragmentary and somewhat distasteful COVID-as-metaphor line of thought — jarred for the way they felt plopped into the evening without much in the way of situating.
None of this disorientation would be surprising, really, coming from the Republican National Convention, given that that party has less to prove and less of a case to make to its true believers, and that it presently thrives on disorientation besides. That after four years out of power, the best Democrats could do was to try everything all at once was disheartening, though there was hope towards the evening’s end, with a speech by Bernie Sanders making a full-throated, detailed, compelling argument for Biden, and a speech by Michelle Obama making a similarly earnest argument for the concept of voting. The former First Lady, a scarce presence on the national scene outside settings she can control (like her memoir, book tour, documentary, and podcast) replaced her connection with live audiences with an impassioned plea to camera. Even those who feel somewhat saturated by her promotion of the cause of Obama Awareness might have been compelled by her speech, despite her mentioning Biden only glancingly and Trump less frequently still. Obama’s argument, for turning out the vote in order to shift the direction of America’s soul, derived an elemental power from her delivery that the uncharitable might suggest stood in for urgency about the specifics of this case. (CNN has reported that Kamala Harris went unmentioned in Obama’s speech because the vice-presidential nominee was chosen after Obama recorded it, a deeply strange detail.)
But in some ways, the floating nature of the Michelle Obama speech felt like a comfort. Pressed for time and trying to distinguish themselves in an environment that did them no favors, most of the evening’s speakers tried to do multiple things in a single Quibi. Obama had a crystalline idea of the speech she wanted to give, one rooted in her sense of Donald Trump both as barely worthy of mention and so self-evidently worthy of defeat that his opponent didn’t merit much, either. This was “going high,” the virtue she once again shouted out in her speech after first broaching it before a rapturous live audience at the last DNC in 2016 — a happier time, and not merely because people could gather together in real life. Then, as now, the concept went over huge, then as a novel way of addressing an unfamiliar threat to democracy, now as a manner of approach that has the air of being time-tested despite the inconvenient fact of not in fact having worked the first time. It, a dispatch from a time when disruptions seemed best addressed by rising above them, was the best an evening that elsewhere couldn’t help but indulging in chaos had to offer, though, and would have to suffice.