Commentary: Opening night of the DNC felt like a telethon. Why that’s a good thing
Call it an unconventional convention, or a sign of the times. The first all-virtual Democratic National Convention answered the question of how to launch a party ticket during a pandemic Monday night with two hours of programming that looked nothing like the conventions of the Before Times.
The first of four nights dedicated to the nomination of former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris, it was part telethon, part Zoom meeting and part outdoor concert, pasted together with awkward segues and underpinned by a dire sense of urgency.
“If you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this: If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can — and they will if we don’t make a change in this election,” said the night’s keynote speaker, former First Lady Michelle Obama, in an impassioned speech about the future of the nation. “If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”
Obama’s unusually direct words about the man who currently resides in the White House (“You simply cannot fake your way through this job,” she said. “Being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are”) and her willingness to step into the political arena to get him out of office echoed the resolve expressed by just about everyone during the convention’s opening night.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s prepared remarks for the first day of the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 17, 2020.
Hosted by Eva Longoria, the production included live and taped testimonials from political leaders such as Bernie Sanders, who inexplicably stood in front of a pile of firewood; musical performances that included a duet by “Pose” star Billy Porter and rock icon Stephen Stills; and video moments with regular folks reacting to Sanders’ and Obama’s speeches from their homes. But the Democratic Party’s telethon for a country in crisis successfully reflected the moment. In fact, a traditional convention may have felt even stranger given the odd times we’re living through.
A COVID-19 death toll of 170,000, an economic downturn, systemic racial injustice, uprisings against that injustice, the rise of white supremacy, global warming and everything else that keeps us up at night and asleep midday: Conventioneers cheering in goofy hats would been downright inappropriate for a messy year like 2020.
The Democratic National Convention launched on Monday in Milwaukee, although nearly all the action was virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s gotten bad enough that even lifelong Republicans chimed in to explain why they’ll be voting for Biden. Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich said, “In normal times, something like this would probably never happen. But these are not normal times. I’m proud of my Republican heritage ... but many of us cannot imagine four more years going down this path.” Former governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman, former New York congresswoman Susan Molinari and businesswoman Meg Whitman, who ran for governor of California in 2010, also expressed their desire to vote blue in November.
The “made-for-TV” convention, as CNN’s Anderson Cooper called it, was peppered with the unpredictable aspects of live TV and video conferencing. Pixelating, tiling computer camera interviews ran back-to-back with ungainly moments of dead air between segments, missed cues and stagehands accidentally walking in front of the camera.
But the message was clear from folks like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who sang Biden’s praises. It was time to rise up and save our democracy, and this message was repeated over and over again. No mystery why Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” was the evening’s recurring soundtrack, bleeding into nearly every transition.
Biden and Harris appeared Monday, but not prominently. They have the rest of the week for that. Monday was just a teaser of what’s to come, and it was some of the testimonials of the People — as in “We the People,” which amounted to the first night’s slogan — that proved the most indelible.
Kristin Urquiza, who lost her father to the coronavirus, delivered a powerful account of his passing that indicted the president for downplaying the seriousness of the disease. In the process she captured, as did Obama’s own lacerating speech, one other advantage of the telethon in our living room’s: the intimate power of direct address.
“There are two Americas: the one Donald Trump lives in and the one my father died in,” she told us. “One of last things my father said to me, is he felt betrayed by Donald Trump... When I cast my vote for Joe Biden, I will do it for my dad.”
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