America’s very first political convention, which preceded the Declaration of Independence by a decade, took place in Connecticut where the “Sons of Liberty” chose an upcoming gubernatorial ticket. If this week’s virtual Democratic National Convention struck you as too progressive, you should have been in Hartford in 1766. Those delegates, white males though they may have been, were true radicals.
The idea of a quadrennial convention to choose a national ticket dates to the 1832 election cycle, when the long-forgotten Anti-Masonic Party met at the Athenaeum Club in Baltimore. The party nominated local U.S. Attorney William Wirt, who would carry only Vermont in November. Watching with interest, President Andrew Jackson didn’t give a whit about Wirt, but he liked the idea of a convention. So Jackson took the Democrats to Baltimore, too, where he changed running mates – replacing a future traitor (John C. Calhoun) with a future president (Martin Van Buren).
Nothing so dramatic happened for the Democrats this week. Political parties no longer choose nominees at conventions. They still get together and make noise, however, while somehow convincing the media to expend vast resources covering the glorified four-day informercial. Until now. COVID-19 did what no other virus, no world war, no Depression, no Dust Bowl, no terrorists attack, and no assassination did before.
The show must go on, though, and the nation’s oldest political party was game. How well it succeeded is a subjective topic, but there were highlights, lowlights, and hours of virtual programming that fell somewhere in between. Here is one first draft of history:
America the Beautiful. Demonstrators protesting police brutality and white racism tore down monuments to Confederate generals and other dead white men this spring and summer. But statues of Union Army generals and abolitionists were also vandalized. Churches were desecrated. The banners being burned were not Confederate flags, they were U.S. flags. Leading Democrats were criticized for refusing to condemn rioters. But in the first moments of the 2020 convention, the Democratic Party gave its answer.
The event officially opened with a moving rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung by people on video in all 50 states. This was followed by Joe Biden’s own grandchildren reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. A montage of Americans recited the “We the People,” the preamble to the Constitution, and the president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition gave the invocation, ending his prayer in the “name of Jesus.”
On Thursday night, the parking lot of the Delaware convention center where Biden delivered his acceptance address was turned into a makeshift drive-in theater. The props? Honking instead of clapping, along with large American flags. Take that, antifa.
Kamala Harris. As soon as Biden pulled ahead of Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries, he vowed to choose a female running mate. He didn’t say she couldn’t be white, and among the early front-runners for the job were Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren. Although Biden never said so, the summer’s social unrest took them out of the running. The famed “shortlist” was culled to include mainly minority women. All the leading contenders, including Florida Rep. Val Demings, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, and former Georgia lawmaker Stacey Abrams, had compelling personal stories. None was better than that of California’s charismatic junior senator.
And though it’s hard to make a splash by giving a political speech to an empty arena, Harris did it Wednesday night. By Thursday morning, Democrats were warming to their “heir apparent.” Biden doesn’t mind. In his acceptance speech, his face lit up when he mentioned his running mate. After outlining a stupendously ambitious agenda for his presidency, Biden expressed relief that he wouldn’t have “to do it alone.” Harris would be his partner, he said, adding that “her story is the American story.”
Jill Biden. If Joe Biden needed a secret weapon in the final stretch, he found one in a high school and community college English teacher. Normally not fond of attention, Jill Biden headlined the second night of the convention, explaining why her husband ought to be back in the White House -- this time, in the Oval Office. Speaking from her old classroom at Brandywine High School, she focused on the current challenges of education.
“The quiet is heavy. You can hear the anxiety that echoes down the empty hallways,” Mrs. Biden said. “There’s no scent of notebooks or freshly waxed floors. The rooms are dark as the bright young faces that should fill them are now confined to boxes on a computer screen.”
Not only would her husband whip coronavirus and reopen schools safely, she promised he would return a sense of grace to the presidency. “We just need leadership worthy of our nation,” she said, “worthy of you.”
It was a polished address full of optimism and delivered flawlessly, a hard task at any convention. Jill Biden was heralded in the press for her poise. She had given a rebuttal to Donald Trump without uttering a bad word about him. No other speaker all week was as deft.
Barack Obama. Speaking of nimble orators, it only took 19 minutes to make Democrats nostalgic for Donald Trump’s predecessor Wednesday night. In 2004, Obama burst onto the national political scene at a real convention, the one in Boston where John Kerry was nominated. Here was a fresh voice who could be partisan without vitriol – a rare trait among Democrats who talked about George W. Bush not too differently from how they speak about Donald Trump now.
“The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states,” said the 2004 convention keynoter. “Red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
Although he spent one paragraph reciting the obligatory Democratic litany blaming Trump for the pandemic, the lockdown, the stalled economy, the nation’s supposedly “badly diminished” international reputation -- and of threatening all our democratic institutions -- Obama again presented an evocatively optimistic vision of America’s past and future.
Brayden, Biden, and Yeats. It’s always been a frustrating affliction for someone who likes the sound of his own voice so much, but Joe Biden has trouble speaking. The former vice president and senator has always had a stutter, an invisible speed bump that throws words off track as they make their way from the brain to the lips.
Biden overcame it, and doesn’t hide it, a story that inspired the likes of Brayden Harrington, a 13-year-old New Hampshire boy who credits the Democratic nominee with helping him overcome his own stutter.
“He told me about a book of poems by Yeats he would read out loud to practice,” the boy said in a heartwarming Thursday night video in which he still struggled with some words. “He showed me how he marks his addresses to make them easier to say out loud,” Brayden continued. “So I did the same thing today and now I'm here talking to you today about the future, about our future.”
Andrew Cuomo. At the Democrats’ 1984 convention, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo electrified the Moscone Center with a full-throated critique of Reaganism. If “runaway conventions” were still possible, such a stampede would have happened in San Francisco. His oldest son’s 2020 convention speech was strangely different, however.
For starters, only in a media environment compromised by bias could New York’s governor emerge as a pandemic-era TV star. His daily briefings were watchable, but Cuomo denied the threat for too long and then forced his state’s nursing homes to take in COVID-stricken patients. This decision ensured that the virus would rage among the state’s elderly, costing thousands of lives.
Yet, on Monday, Cuomo slammed Trump even as his state records the most fatalities in the nation. He also spun a strange story. “COVID is the symptom, not the illness,” he argued. “Our nation is in crisis. And in many ways, COVID is just a metaphor. A virus attacks when the body is weak and when it cannot defend itself.”
Biden later thanked the governor for his remarks, for his “leadership and the example you’ve set for all Americans during this pandemic.” The virus has killed more than 32,000 New Yorkers. Cuomo announced the next day that he is writing a book.
Facts Are Stubborn Things. Political conventions have never been the natural habitat for sticklers of accuracy. But for a political party eager to tell the nation that Donald Trump lies all the time, they were uncareful with the truth.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicted that 17 million Americans – not 40 million, as Bernie Sanders claimed -- would get a raise if the federal minimum wage were increased to $15 (and that’s not counting the jobs that would be lost as a result).
Monday night’s emcee, Eva Longoria, repeated the Democratic talking point that the Trump administration “disbanded the pandemic response team that was given to them.” That didn’t happen. In a riff about Trump’s supposed destruction of the U.S. Postal Service, she also asserted “Social Security beneficiaries count on the post office to get their checks.” This is Rip Van Winkle territory. Since 2013, almost all Social Security beneficiaries are required to receive their monthly stipends through electronic bank deposits. The Social Security Administration says that only 1.2% of its payments are sent through the mail.
In her Tuesday speech, Michelle Obama blasted the Trump administration over migrant “children…torn from their families and thrown into cages.” A more honest accounting, as the Associated Press pointed out, would have included noting that those same “cages” were ordered and built during her husband’s presidency and for the same purpose.
In a more cynical deception on Wednesday, a Latina girl told how her mother was deported, a sad story punctuated by a montage of video clips of Trump saying, “These aren’t people. ... I don’t want them in our country. ... They’re animals.” This was one step above an Internet deep fake. Trump wasn’t talking about immigrants, legal or illegal. He was responding to questions about members of the violent MS-13 gang – the kind that would prey on that girl and her mother.
And no, Hillary Clinton, U.S. billionaires didn’t become “$400 billion richer” during the pandemic; they became $400 billion lighter.
As for John Kerry’s boast that the Obama administration “eliminated” the threat of a nuclear Iran, well, this is such a perfect imitation of how Trump himself talks that it sounded like parody.
Speaking of the current president, in response to Kamala Harris’ speech, Trump took to Twitter, posting an all-caps tweet beginning this way: “BUT DIDN’T SHE CALL HIM A RACIST???” If those question marks are actually a question instead of the president’s typically unhinged style of punctuation, the answer would be unambiguous. When Harris ambushed Biden on forced school busing during the Democrats’ June 27, 2019 debate, she specifically prefaced her criticism by saying, “I do not believe you are a racist.”
Trump the Killer. He may murder the English language, but Democrats weren’t content with that -- they accused the president of being personally responsible for killing some of his own supporters who died of COVID-19.
"My dad was a healthy 65-year-old. His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life,” Kristin Urquiza said of her father Mark, who died in Arizona in June from COVID. “Donald Trump may not have caused the coronavirus, but his dishonesty and his irresponsible actions made it so much worse.”
Politics ain’t beanbag, the old saying goes, but this is politics as blood sport. Accusing the GOP nominee of callously killing people has become a Democratic Party trope, used at the 1992 convention against Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and in 2012 against Mitt Romney, who was somehow deemed responsible for the death of a steelworker’s wife. Fact-checkers who delved into these cases invariably concluded that the true callousness comes from the liberties Democrats have taken with the facts.
MAKING THE BEST OF IT
Songs. A partisan Democrat from the left wing of the party, the Boss famously refused to show any love to fellow Jersey guy Chris Christie, and every four years Bruce Sprinsteen does what he can for the Democratic presidential nominee. But the repurposing of his song “The Rising” is a creation all its own, one equating the pandemic with 9/11. It worked well. As for the rest of the music, it was far better than the fare at most conventions.
No, we didn’t need to hear Billie Eilish preface her performance by asserting, “Donald Trump is destroying our country and everything we care about” -- you can watch MSNBC any day of the week for that -- but numbers by John Legend, Billy Porter with Stephen Stills, and Thursday’s acapella rendition of “The Star-Bangled Banner” by the band formerly known as the Dixie Chicks hit all the notes.
Revolving Moderators. Eva Longoria wasn’t the only emcee who practiced excess partisanship. The DNC drafted a different celebrity each night for the job, four women from Hollywood charged with keeping things humming and providing the occasional moment of levity. Some did better than others. On Thursday night, Julia Louis-Dreyfus made jokes about Trump cheating at golf, about Trump not releasing his tax returns, about Trump tweeting. All of it predictable, except perhaps for an oddly unfunny bit about Mike Pence’s name.
In other words, one of the stars of “Seinfeld” used her role to bloviate about nothing. But Cory Booker might have found another line of work if this politics thing doesn’t work out. He seamlessly moderated a Zoom panel of the Democratic primary candidates bested by Biden.
The Kasich & Bernie Show: John Kasich’s gimmick of appearing at a literal crossroads couldn’t have been any more corny unless he’d been in an actual cornfield, but then again the former Ohio governor wasn’t going for subtlety. “I’m a lifelong Republican,” he said in the video aired Monday night. “But these are not normal times.” The most prominent GOP no-show at the party’s 2016 Cleveland convention, Kasich took the next step four years later, openly urging Republicans to jump ship for Biden.
“I’m sure there are Republicans and independents who couldn’t imagine crossing over to support a Democrat,” he explained. “They fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that because I know the measure of the man: reasonable, faithful, respectful. And you know, no one pushes Joe around.”
Later that night, the Democrats aired Bernie Sanders’ video. When he and Kasich served together in the House, Kasich was a leading fiscal conservative, while Bernie was one of the most liberal members. For most of his time in the Senate, Sanders didn’t call himself a Democrat. He’s been, variously, a “Socialist,” an “Independent,” and is now a “Democratic Socialist.”
Whatever he’s called, Sanders has always been far to the left of Joe Biden. But he was supposed to reassure progressives that all was well. How so? If you listened carefully, it was by offering nearly the opposite argument as Kasich. I know you fear Joe Biden might be too squishy, he told his comrades on the left. Not to worry: I’ve already remade the Democratic Party in our image. “Our campaign ended several months ago, but our movement continues and is getting stronger every day," Sanders said. "Many of the ideas we fought for, that just a few years ago were considered ‘radical,’ are now mainstream.”
Virtual Roll Call. Let’s face it: The calling of the roll at every convention is an anachronism when the nomination is not in doubt, which it hasn’t been for any convention in many years. Nonetheless, it’s a treasured ritual for the party faithful and occasionally entertaining -- as it was at the 2000 GOP convention when the microphone was passed to the head of Florida’s delegation. He was, he told the noisy hall, “the only person on this floor that has had his mouth washed out by the greatest, most popular woman in the world, been spanked by a president of the United States, and has gotten a wedgie from the next president of the United States.”
“Florida,” Jeb Bush added as the roar of crowd drowned him out, “proudly casts its vote, its 80 delegates, to a man that I love, admire and respect, George W. Bush.”
Without that setting, what were Democrats to do? Party planners zoomed (or Zoomed) to the rescue, putting delegation leaders in iconic local landmarks while calling the roll from 57 states, territories, and the District of Columbia. It was much better than usual.
'Tis Himself. Many prominent Democrats were privately nervous about Biden’s acceptance address. The man is 77 years old – and he’s always been something of a windbag. But let it be said that the 2020 nominee chose the right moment to rise well above expectations. Undecided voters who have been listening to Trump might have expected Biden to drool on himself. Instead, he gave an impassioned address characterized by emotion, empathy, spiritualism and an unshakeable believe that America must pull itself up by pulling itself together.
He vowed at the outset of the speech to work as hard, if elected, for those who didn’t vote for him as for those who did. In so doing, Joe Biden earned the distinction of delivering a less partisan speech at a political convention than Donald Trump did at an inauguration.
“Here and now, I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst,” he said. “I will be an ally of the light, not of the darkness.
“It's time for us, for We the People, to come together.”