Commentary: DNC pulls out the stops on opening night, delivers a TV variety show

Watch: Day one of the Democratic National Convention in less than 3 minutes. More convention coverage at

There are those who believe, or claim to, that there is no difference between the two major American political parties, but no one who wandered onto the convention floors in Cleveland at the beginning of last week or Philadelphia on Monday could have mistaken one for the other. They were different in tone and substance, in form and content, in intention and energy – not perfect mirror images, but with opposing moods and visions: dark/light, fear/hope, me/us.

Oddly, where the Republican National Convention had been expected to be a “television show” from top to bottom and beginning to end, given the resume of its nominee, it was the Democrats who put on the high-watt special. Paul Simon sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (because bridges, not walls), while the crowd linked arms and swayed. Clinton supporter Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, formerly of ”Saturday Night Live,”returned to comedy, first in a solo turn as a graduate in “megalomania” from Trump University — “learning directly from success experts like Scott Baio, Mike Tyson and of course a life-sized cardboard cutout of Mr. Trump himself” — and later in a double act with Bernie Sanders supporter-turned Hillary Clinton supporter Sarah Silverman. (“Can I just say to the ‘Bernie or Bust’ people,” Silverman added impromptu to a restive segment of the crowd, “you’re being ridiculous.”) Short comical films, produced by Funny or Die, used Republican nominee Donald Trump’s statements against him, ironically.

It had been a day that started inauspiciously, not only with now-former DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz being chased from her state delegation’s breakfast meeting by the jeers of Sanders’ supporters, but with Sanders himself booed by supporters who rejected his call for them to support Clinton for president. The business of the evening would be to take the new unity out for a public spin.


And though there were moments of tension, when possibly angry chants rose briefly from the convention floor -- it was hard to make out what was being chanted -- the evening’s four big speeches, from an oratorical murderer’s row comprising Sen. Cory Booker, First Lady Michelle Obama, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sanders, seemed, on TV at least, to overwhelm the ire.

Booker started slow and steady and built until he was mopping the sweat from his brow, reaching to Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” for a climactic refrain: “You may trod me in the very dirt, but still like dust I rise.” You could track his effect on the room by watching the reaction of Bill Clinton, whom MSNBC popped in a window next to Booker, as it moved from deadpan interest to smiling delight.

Michelle Obama, first lady of the United States, speaks at the Democratic National Convention. More coverage at

Then came Obama, whose sense of mission and sense of fun – you caught her “Carpool Karaoke” with James Corden last week, I hope — have made her a most beloved FLOTUS. Well-wrought and passionately delivered, hers was the speech of the night, crackling with the electricity of a Beyonce video. Obama began with an early White House memory of sending her daughters off to school “in those SUVs with all those big men with guns and I saw their little faces pressed up against the window and the only thing I could think was ‘What have we done?’” She went after Trump, not by name, endorsed Clinton roundly, and returned to and elaborated a theme she had visited in a recent commencement address: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” and came around to her girls again, playing on the lawn with their dog.

The back half of the night belonged to the two stars of the party’s newly empowered progressive wing -- Warren, who has been on board the Clinton train for a little while now, and Sanders, who is just now managing the trick of folding old imprecations into new exaltation. The Massachusetts senator, who carries herself like a librarian headlining an action film, turned from the pulpit uplift of Booker and Obama to a more direct attack on the Republican nominee. If she lacked the first lady’s intensity, she made a good connection between her and Sanders — a quieter verse before the big, crashing last chorus.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren adresses delegates on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren adresses delegates on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Sanders, whose speech ran out of prime time, managed to visit all his campaign points and successes, and launch the media a little kick in the behind regarding their obsession with trivia. Although he threw in a single joke about being more disappointed than any of his supporters that it wasn’t he who was being nominated for president, he is a serious old prophet, who speaks thunderously of revolution and uses words like “oligarchy” and “acidification.”

He took his time getting around to Clinton, but when he did, he was unequivocal: “Any objective observer will conclude that, based on her ideas and her leadership, Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States.” If some of his followers declined to agree – the cameras sought them out, some with the word “Silenced” taped across their mouth -- it was not surprising given the story he’d told them previously. But I would guess the Clinton camp was on balance pleased. It felt like a party – and a Party.

The cable networks covered the event in their usual different ways. Fox ran a chyron beneath the speeches to remind viewers about terrorists, Turkey and WikiLeaks. On MSNBC, Brian Williams pointed out that Paul Simon has a great new album and that, while Sarah Silverman is of course a great comedian, he also likes “her dramatic work” on the Showtime series “Masters of Sex.” CNN had too many commentators to keep track of at their big arcing desk. Pundits argued about what they had seen, what would happen next, and what people were going to have to do to win. There was a lack of consensus.


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Sarah Silverman has a blunt message for ‘Bernie-or-bust’ crowd

Convention opens to boos but Democrats salvage the night