If you evaluate the Democratic convention as pure spectacle, five things happened on Monday to make its first evening a pretty big success.
First, the networks didn’t bother to broadcast the proceedings until 10 p.m. There may be other nights to come where one hour of coverage will seem insufficient. But in this case, a parade of hacks was kept off camera, including Franklin Roosevelt’s grandson, two leaders of teachers’ unions, and the Chicago city clerk. Also, voters might have been turned off by the way Jimmy Carter was hustled on and off stage (which happened around 8:30) if anyone beyond the C-SPAN audience had been able to see it.
Second, the Democrats installed a huge 103-inch, high-definition TelePrompTer directly in front of their podium, allowing speakers to talk directly to TV cameras while reading their remarks.
Third, Ted Kennedy made it to Denver. His aides told TV producers he would talk for four minutes, but he held the stage for twice that long, with only his thinning hair and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg’s wistful eyes betraying any hint of his brain cancer. (Honestly, Kennedy gave a far more commanding performance than the stumbling effort he delivered in Boston in 2004.) The optics couldn’t have been better for the Obamacrats: the liberal lion summoning a last roar, the Kennedy who has grown old passing the torch to the leader of a new generation. Kennedy filled the arena with genuine emotion, had the TV anchors tripping over themselves to praise him, and basically rendered the first night of the convention immune to Republican criticism.
On a related note, Kennedy’s appearance, which took place around 9:40, forced the networks to cover what had just happened when they came on air at ten. That meant they missed much of Jim Leach, a boring, Republican, out-of-office congressman who had no business landing a prime-time speaking slot.
Fourth, Michelle Obama played Tammi Terrell to the hilt. In their élan and their obvious affection for each other, Barack and Michelle recall Marvin and Tammi. And the Obamas’ call for an inspirational can-do liberalism echoes Democratic politics from the era of Motown, JFK, and Mad Men, just before the cultural and political breakdowns Barack Obama has campaigned on moving beyond. If Barack and Michelle can highlight the early-sixties vibe of their appeal, they’ll be a mainstream hit, which is why right-wingers are so eager to brand them as late-sixties-style radicals instead. Last night, Michelle launched that reintroduction. She related warm stories about her family, and her delivery was intense but graceful. And she wore a mint-green dress that bared her clavicle but not her knees.
Finally, Sasha Obama grabbed the mike. After Michelle’s speech, when Barack Obama popped up on a giant video screen to say hello to his family and the crowd, two awful things almost happened. Obama nearly undid the good vibes his wife had just generated by droning on, too cloyingly and slightly out of sync, about the people he was sitting with, when 7-year-old Sasha yelled, “Hi, Girardo family!” Obama also botched the name of the place he was in, saying “St. Louis” instead of “Kansas City,” but when Sasha asked, “What city are you in, Daddy?” he corrected himself.
After that, the Obamas left the stage. His charming daughter had saved Barack’s bacon, and they knew to quit while they were ahead.