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Dems come together, mostly, and Michelle Obama gives a brilliant speech

In clever and subtle remarks, the first lady managed to royally skewer Donald Trump without ever mentioning his name.

First Lady Michelle Obama waving to delegates during the first session at the Democratic National Convention on Monday night.
REUTERS/Jim Young

During the early hours of the first day of the Democratic Convention Monday in Philadelphia, a portion of the contingent of Bernie Sanders supporters decided to boo at every mention of Hillary Clinton’s name. According to the New York Times, they even booed Sanders when he directly asked them to join him in supporting Clinton and some sunk to the level of chanting “lock her up,” in imitation of the popular chant at last week’s Repub festivities.

A lot of this was attributed to anger over the news (via WikiLeaks and apparently also via Russian intelligence agencies that had hacked into the DNC’s email operation) that, although the DNC was required to be neutral during the contest for the Dem presidential nomination, many of its officials had strongly supported Clinton over Sanders and were even plotting obnoxious, underhanded ways to damage his candidacy. During the first hour of the prime-time portion of the convention, this was the main storyline upon which the commentators were commentating.

Sanders’ ‘unequivocal, emphatic endorsement’

By the end of the star-studded evening of speeches (including the final, long keynote address by Sanders himself, which included what columnist Mark Shields called a “full-throated, unequivocal, emphatic endorsement” of Clinton for president) the angry Bernie-ites angle had receded dramatically. We’ll see if it comes back.

In place of that angle, the reviews were glowing for several of the evening’s speeches, most especially the one by first lady Michelle Obama. You couldn’t gush much gushier than did Paul Begala, a former Bill Clinton adviser and now a frequent panelist on CNN, who spake of Michelle Obama’s speech thus:

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“I want to come back to the first lady’s speech. This is my 9th Democratic convention, and I’ve done three or four Republican conventions. I can’t count how many hundreds of convention speeches. You cannot do better than she did. It was that good. Because she came from her personal experience and she made the character case for Hillary. These words were carefully chosen by the Princeton grad: ‘Because there is only one person I trust with that responsibility for my children; that is our friend, Hillary Clinton.’ You can’t ask for more.”

I also thought the first lady nailed her speech, but would be embarrassed to gush on like that. The other problem with Begala’s comment was that he failed to mention the real, clever subtlety of Michelle Obama’s speech, which I’ll specify at the bottom.

Emphasis shifts

Anyway, as the evening wore on, the commentariat switched from the rebellion-of-the-Sandersites angle to the admiration of a number of good speeches and a growing sense that the Dems were well on their way to unifying. A month ago, soon after Clinton locked up the nomination, a Bloomberg poll reported that only 55 percent of those who had supported Sanders planned to vote for Clinton. The rest were scattered among Donald Trump, the Libertarian ticket, and some don’t knows. If that held up, it would a gigantic factor in November.

I asked my friend Larry Jacobs, who had recently described the power of partisan loyalty as a “tractor beam” that irresistibly pulls most people back to the party for whom they usually vote, whether he thought the Sanders people would be pulled back to Clinton by the tractor beam, and he said yes, and that, in fact, it had already happened. He pointed me to a recent Pew study finding that 90 percent of those who had consistently supported Sanders planned to vote for Clinton. As far as last night’s booing goes, bear in mind that this was at most a few dozen of the most devoted and committed Sanders supporters.

Sanders’ speech last night, which ended the long evening’s program in Philadelphia, generally got good reviews from the pundits. To me, it was basically a repetition of the arguments Sanders has been making all year, about the need for a higher minimum wage, measures to make college more affordable, to further reduce the ranks of the uninsured, and to crack down on Wall Street’s ability to rig the financial system to its own benefit. Sanders praised the degree to which he and Clinton had compromised to make the party platform “the most progressive in history” and said that, because she had moved left on many of these issues and because of, well, you know, Trump, “Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States.”

‘A proud alum of Trump U’

Of Minnesota note, both Rep. Keith Ellison and Sen. Al Franken had prominent prime-time roles last night. Ellison, a staunch Bernie backer who had already announced that he would get behind Clinton, was chosen to introduce Sanders for his speech. Franken had a speaking slot all to himself, in which he demonstrated his comedic gifts more than he generally did during his first term. He described himself as “a world-renowned expert on right-wing megalomaniacs” a field in which he “got [his] doctorate at Trump University.” The sarcasm continued, thus:

Frankly, as a proud alum of Trump U, I think we may be misunderestimating Donald Trump. Sure, he’s scammed a lot of people. But did you know that Trump University’s School of Ripping People Off is ranked second in the nation? Right behind Bernie Madoff University? That’s no mean feat.

And Trump University is about more than just bilking people. Although, trust me, you will get bilked. It’s also about learning directly from success experts like Scott Baio, Mike Tyson, and, of course, a life-size cardboard cutout of Mr. Trump himself.

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If you want more, here’s a transcript of Franken’s whole comedy routine. But he soon came back on stage, paired with comedian Sarah Silverman, to do a little joking around and also to introduce a musical interlude by the great Paul Simon.

The Silverman-Franken ‘bridge’

The Silverman-Franken team was almost surely chosen because Franken has backed Clinton all year while Silverman has backed Sanders. In keeping with the theme of the night, they now joined to urge Bernie backers to unite behind Clinton. And Paul Simon was scheduled next to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” a song we have to believe was requested as a metaphor for the symbolic bridge the Dems were now trying to build over the troubled waters that had previously separated Camp Clinton and Camp Sanders. Silverman’s assignment was surely to build a bridge to the Sanders camp, because she was one of them, and charm the “Bernie or Bust” crowd to walk across it. And she did that. And it seemed to be a good idea by the organizers until …

… Well, Simon wasn’t ready to come on stage on time and the new comedy team had to fill. Silverman used the extra time to go off script and ad lib, thus: “Can I just say, to the Bernie or bust people, ‘You are being ridiculous.’ ”  

I’m guessing that wasn’t the tone the planners of this portion of the program had in mind.

Anti-Trump energy

It was often said during the Republican convention last week, that the energy of the convention was more anti-Clinton than it was pro-Trump. There was a good bit of that going in the other direction last night. I didn’t have a stopwatch working, but I’m betting that more time was consumed with Trump-bashing than Clinton-praising. For example, this, from former NBA player Jarron Collins:

When it comes to Donald Trump: How do you tell your kids not to be a bully if their president is one? How do you teach kids to respect their heritage — my wife is Mexican-American — if their president disparages it? How do you tell your daughters they are empowered if their president reduces women to their physical appearance?

I thought was powerful and deftly done.

But the calculation of how much time was spent trashing the Donald would depend on how you scored the boffo performance by Michelle Obama. She managed to complete her remarks without mentioning Trump’s name. And, as Paul Begala’s remarks above suggest, she gave powerful character testimony for Clinton (notwithstanding an earlier, fraught relationship dating back to the 2008 campaign). But the real brilliance of her talk was how she managed to royally skewer Trump without mentioning his name. It was pretty cool, and it’s what I meant above about the subtlety of her remarks.

Deft insults laced within speech

With a few examples from the first lady’s speech, I suspect you can see how many deft insults to Trump are laced within. It was all done on the theme of raising children to be good people, and teaching them how the world works, and teaching them gratitude for what a great country they live in, and how a president must set a good example that helps parents everywhere raise their kids. The Obamas do this, with their kids, Michelle Obama said by:

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How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country.

How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is: When they go low, we go high. …

And when I think about the kind of president that I want for my girls and all our children, that’s what I want. …

I want someone with the proven strength to persevere, someone who knows this job and takes it seriously, someone who understands that the issues a president faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters.

Because when you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out. You need to be steady and measured and well-informed.

I want a president with a record of public service, someone whose life’s work shows our children that we don’t chase form and fortune for ourselves, we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed.

I want a president who will teach our children that everyone in this country matters, a president who truly believes in the vision that our Founders put forth all those years ago that we are all created equal, each a beloved part of the great American story.

And when crisis hits, we don’t turn against each other. No, we listen to each other, we lean on each other, because we are always stronger together.

So, look, don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on earth!

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And as my daughters prepare to set out into the world, I want a leader who is worthy of that truth, a leader who is worthy of my girls’ promise and all our kids’ promise, a leader who will be guided every day by the love and hope and impossibly big dreams that we all have for our children.

Gosh, I wonder who it is that tells our kids that our country isn’t great, or who communicates in 140 character bursts, or who utters hateful language on TV, or has a tendency to lash out, or who …