I am probably the biggest political junky you will ever meet. I haven’t missed a presidential nominating convention, Republican and Democrat, since 1956. I was eight years old that year, and I remember listening to Dwight Eisenhower’s acceptance speech through the wall after my parents made me go to bed.
Since then, I have been glued to the tube every four years. I remember Ronald Reagan’s breakthrough speech in support of Barry Goldwater in 1964. I was riveted watching the riots in the streets of Chicago in 1968. I sat up, bleary-eyed until 3:00 a.m. waiting for George McGovern’s ill-timed acceptance speech in 1972. I remember Ronald Reagan coming within a hair of beating the accidental incumbent, Gerald Ford, in 1976. And like many Americans, I was appalled when Ted Kennedy made Jimmy Carter, the sitting President of the United States, chase him around the stage at the end of the 1980 Democrat convention just to shake his hand.
There have been memorable moments. Ronald Reagan’s farewell at the 1992 convention was one of the most inspiring political events of my lifetime. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to win re-election for George H.W. Bush, but that, of course, was not the Gipper’s fault.
Since the Democratic fiascos of 1968 and 1972, the conventions have become more and more tightly scripted. The GOP convention of 1996 was a showcase to set the stage for a future featuring Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
However, nothing could have prepared any of us for the dog and pony show we have seen in Denver so far this week. James Carville was right when he said that Monday night was boring. Nancy Pelosi, possibly one of the worst public speakers in the history of the modern U.S. House of Representatives, led off the primetime lineup. Michelle Obama left many of us scratching our heads trying to recall when prospective First Ladies began having speaking roles at the conventions. And the tribute to Ted Kennedy, which for Democrats probably elicited the same feelings I felt listening to Reagan in ’92, did nothing for me. In fact, someone should have advised filmmaker Ken Burns to avoid so many references to the sea being a metaphor for life, etc., given the image of Mary Jo Kopechne still on the minds of many Americans.
For those of us who have held our breath hoping for some drama in this convention, we have been disappointed. As I write this, it is Tuesday night and Hillary Clinton has just finished speaking. Earlier in the evening, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner gave a satisfactory keynote address. It was predicable and not particularly memorable.
Hillary’s speech seemed like the launch of her 2012 campaign (which makes one wonder how hard she and Bill will really campaign for Obama). She was introduced by her daughter, Chelsea, and by a rousing video. Early in her speech, she made it clear she was in support of Obama; but in the same sentence she said, “I am a proud American,” a statement that seemed like a slap at Michelle Obama.
Much of her speech was red meat straight out of DNC talking points (“No way, no how, no McCain”), and she was careful to mention Obama’s name frequently, but there was a self-serving tone to it. She mentioned the “peace and prosperity” of the last Clinton administration (to the delight of a grinning Bill). When she said that Barack Obama was going to have a great partner in the White House, I immediately thought she was talking about Joe Biden, Obama’s running mate. But no, she was talking about Michelle. (Of course, Hillary would always think of the First Lady as the second in command, wouldn’t she?)
Eventually, the theme of the speech became clear, and it had nothing to do with Barack Obama. She mentioned the 18 million votes she received in the primaries, and then said, “My mother was born before women could vote,” she said. “My daughter got to vote for her mother for president.”
Quoting Harriett Tubman of Underground Railroad fame, Hillary seemed to be giving the crowd a metaphor for her own political future.
“If you hear the dogs, keep going,” she said, quoting Tubman. “If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If they’re shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going!”
Call me cynical, but it sounded a lot like an announcement to me.