‘We are a better country than this’

Times Staff Writer

Barack Obama accepted the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday night with a scathing assessment of John McCain and a blunt indictment of the Bush administration, promising to repair “the broken politics of Washington” and preside over a more prosperous and equitable America.

Speaking to a rapturous audience of more than 84,000 packed into a football stadium, Obama delivered a 44-minute address that was more sharply worded than his usual lyrical prose. He blasted President Bush with some of the harshest language of the campaign, painting a grim picture of economic hardship: rising unemployment, falling wages, plunging home values, and rising costs for gasoline and college tuition.

“America, we are better than these last eight years,” Obama said, speaking from an elaborate stage on the floor of the Denver Broncos football stadium. “We are a better country than this.”

Fending off Republican attacks on his judgment, experience and ability to understand middle America, Obama insisted it was Arizona Sen. McCain, his GOP rival, who “doesn’t get it.”


“For over two decades, he’s subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy: Give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else,” Obama said. “In Washington, they call this the ‘ownership society,’ but what it really means is ‘You’re on your own.’

“Well, it’s time for them to own their failure,” Obama went on, as the stadium erupted in cheers. “It’s time for us to change America.”

In closing out the Democratic convention, the Illinois senator seemed to address any doubts about his readiness for what promises to be a brutal fall campaign. He also sought to answer critics who say that his rhetoric, while perhaps captivating, is often vacant; that his message of hope and change, while inspiring, is platitudinous.

“Let me spell out exactly what that change would mean if I am president,” Obama said.

He pledged “to end this war in Iraq responsibly and finish the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan,” wean the U.S. from Middle Eastern oil within a decade, cut taxes “for 95% of all working families,” and deliver “affordable, accessible healthcare for every single American.”


Making history

Whatever happens in November, Thursday night’s unprecedented scene was a testament to racial progress in America, a nation founded by slave owners and cleaved by civil war followed by a century of acrimony.

Less than 50 years after people with Obama’s complexion were forbidden from voting in some states, Obama became the first African American to accept the presidential nomination of one of the country’s two major political parties.

Far up in the stands, Lionel Washington, 24, passed his hand over his face as if he were in a dream. “I can’t believe I’m here,” said Washington, who is black and works for his Democratic precinct in Denver. “I’m going to cry,” he said when Obama took the stage. “I can’t cry,” he said, as his eyes filled with tears. “Change is gonna come!” he screamed.

Adding to the historical resonance, Obama noted his speech came on the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” address.

“Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!” King said that day; Obama’s triumph, standing in the shadow of those mountains, suggested the country was closer to the colorblind society King saw from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

For the most important speech of his political career, Obama chose a setting as audacious as his candidacy itself: a raised blue-carpeted platform at the center of the coliseum, with a backdrop of Greco-Tuscan columns and more than a dozen American flags.

Republicans mocked the spectacle, calling it further proof that the Democratic nominee was an empty-suited celebrity smitten with himself. Outside the Pepsi Center arena, where Democrats gathered for the first three nights of their convention, a small circle of demonstrators swathed in togas sarcastically chanted, “We’re not worthy!”

McCain broke from a week of attacks to congratulate his opponent in a TV spot. “Tomorrow, we’ll be back at it,” McCain said, smiling into the camera, “but tonight, senator, job well done.” He hopes to seize back a bit of the limelight today by announcing his vice presidential running mate at a rally in Dayton, Ohio.

Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, will set out today on a tour of battleground states, starting in Pennsylvania.


Linking McCain to Bush

Democrats had spent the first days of the convention introducing their ticket to America, stitching the wounds between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who received a passing mention at the top of Obama’s speech -- and attempting to lash McCain to the unpopular Bush legacy.

Former Vice President Al Gore, the party’s 2000 standard-bearer, received a stadium-rattling ovation when he likened McCain to a Bush clone. “I believe in recycling,” the environmental-minded Gore quipped, “but that’s ridiculous.”

That left the final, and most important, task of the week to Obama: selling voters on his vision, convincing them of his empathy and persuading doubters he is up to the job of president a scant four years after he left the Illinois Legislature.

He salted his speech with the stories of people he met on the campaign trail, suggesting he was not as exotic or distant as his mixed-race background and cool demeanor might sometimes suggest.

He talked of his mother, who was forced onto food stamps but still sent her children to college; and his grandmother, who put off buying dresses or a new car to help him instead.

“I don’t know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead,” he said, “but this has been mine.”


‘A misguided war’

Obama challenged McCain on issues at home and abroad, including the war in Iraq. Obama said he was correct in his consistent opposition, while McCain “stands alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war.”

He laid blame for Washington’s “broken politics” on the “the failed policies of George W. Bush.”

“The same party that brought you two terms of George Bush and Dick Cheney will ask this country for a third,” Obama said, referring to next week’s Republican National Convention. “We love this country too much to let the next four years look like the last eight. On Nov. 4, we must stand up and say, ‘Eight is enough.’ ”

After a brief salute to McCain and his heroic military service, Obama derided his rival’s maverick image. “John McCain has voted with George Bush 90% of the time,” Obama said. “Sen. McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush was right more than 90% of the time? I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to take a 10% chance on change.”

When Obama finished, the sky filled with a blaze of fireworks. His wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, joined him on stage along with Biden and Biden’s wife, Jill. The girls danced amid a rain of red, white and blue confetti as flashbulbs winked throughout the stadium.

The weather was warm and hazy as onlookers began filing into the stadium more than eight hours before Obama’s scheduled turn onstage. Outside, scalpers hawked the free tickets for as much as $150 apiece. Others turned to the Internet with offers to buy or barter their way in. A professional massage therapist offered eight one-hour sessions, worth more than $500, for two tickets.

Not everyone arrived enraptured with Obama. Debbie Diver of nearby Englewood, Colo., was still angry about Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

Still, she showed up pushing her 83-year-old father in a wheelchair because, Diver said, “I wasn’t going to let my disappointment stand in the way of being at what is an historic event.”


Tight security

Security was exceedingly tight -- police snipers with rifles stood on top of the giant screen at one end of the stadium -- and at one point a line of thousands of people snaked for more than a mile.

Joe Bugg wasn’t bothered by the wait. The 72-year-old retired social worker traveled from his home in Indianapolis to witness Obama’s speech.

“Forty years ago, I was sure it wouldn’t happen,” said Bugg, an African American who recalled being exiled to the rear of buses and movie theaters during the days of Jim Crow.

He continued: “That’s why I’m here. I have to be part of this.”


Times staff writers Robin Abcarian, DeeDee Correll, Don Frederick and Nicholas Riccardi and Chicago Tribune staff writer Jim Tankersley contributed to this report.


History repeating itself: “Now is the time,” Obama’s refrain tonight, was also a refrain from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was also a campaign slogan that Nelson Mandela used when he won the 1994 election as South Africa’s first black president.