WHO IS BARACK,
WHAT IS HE?
Obama's Convention opens with an
attempt to reintroduce himself
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
The 45th Quadrennial Democratic National Convention was gaveled to order shortly after 5 PM Eastern Time (3 PM local at the Pepsi Center in Denver [2100 UTC]), Monday 25 August 2008, by Democratic National Committee Chairman and Temporary Convention Chair Howard Dean. After describing the assembled delegates as a testament to the strength and unity of our Party (thereby setting a tone of a Convention mission of unifying the Democrats, despite the hard-fought Primary/Caucus campaign between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton), Dean called forth former Colorado State Senator and President of the Latin Research and Service Agency Polly Baca to deliver the Invocation. The Presentation of the Colors was by the Navajo Code-Talkers Association: Angela Morgan led the Pledge of the Allegiance and the Colorado Children's Chorale sang the National Anthem.
The first speaker was Convention CEO, the Rev. Leah Daughtry (I found it most interesting that the Invocation was not led by someone identified as clergy, yet the very first speaker of the Convention was, indeed, a pastor). She described her Party as made up of people of enormous faith, who summon God into their midst. The Democrats, who seem ever sensitive to the Republicans ever so readily taking up the mantle of That Old Time Religion, was obviously- from the very outset of their gathering- not at all conceding that point to the GOP!
As she concluded her remarks Rev. Daughtry led the gathering in a chant of "Yes, we can!" which- as became so evident as the proceedings wore on (with the frequent display of signs with those very words in the hands of many a delegate so often seen on camera)- was clearly one of the themes of this Convention.
This was followed by a video presentation including various and sundry Democratic politicians from the Intermountain West (where Denver, the host city of the Convention, is located) extolling the recent political successes of the Party in an area of the United States where Senator Obama will have to be competitive with Senator McCain in order to have the best chance of winning the upcoming Presidential Election. As Nevada Senator Harry Reid- the Senate Majority Leader- put it towards the end of that short film: The road to the Presidency goes through the West.
Next came the usual things that National Conventions have always had to dispense with- though, back in the "good old days", these would be dealt with (and openly discussed) over the first two days... not so at this Convention, however! If not quite a rousing show of potential Party unity, here was at least some of that-- involving areas of potential contention that, all too often, would become quite divisive in Conventions past:
First, of course, there was the Credentials Report (for the official Roll of Delegates and Alternates has to be formally approved by the body so meeting before that body can legally conduct any business [all 'Parliamentary Procedure 101']-- after all, you have to know who can vote before any other votes can even be taken!)
Co-chair of the Credential Committee, Eliseo Roques-Arroyo of Puerto Rico, spoke first. As there were no longer any contentious Credentials issues (the once-sanctioned delegates from the States of Florida and Michigan had already been, by a vote of the Committee the day before, given back their full, original allocation of votes on the floor), Roques-Arroyo extolled the virtues of the man his Party was soon to nominate for President, describing Senator Obama as the only one person who can bring the change this country needs.
Co-Credentials Committee Chair James Roosevelt, Jr. of Massachusetts was the one who came forth to opine that the long (where not also arduous) Primary/Caucus process we had all witnessed this past Spring was a diverse and open process that was new and exciting. Finally, it was left to co-Credentials Committee Chair (and former Clinton Administration Secretary of Labor) Alexis Herman to formally move the adoption of the Credentials Report (including a full vote for every delegate from all but the unincorporated Territories represented at the Convention and Democrats Abroad [where 1/2 votes were part of the original allocations]). Temporary Chair Dean asked for a second (the motion was seconded), asked if there was to be any discussion (no) and the Convention then approved the Credentials Report viva voce.
Next came the report of the Rules Committee, which covered both the rules under which the Convention itself would operate as well as setting up the potential rules for the selection of delegates to the next Democratic National Convention (in 2012). Rules Committee co-chair Sunita Leeds announced that the Rules report included a recommendation for what was called a "Democratic Change Commission" which would be appointed in 2009 to revise the manner in which delegates would be pledged and selected four years hence (specifically mentioned were reviews of the role of unpledged superdelegates and improvements to the operation of Caucuses).
Then former Ohio Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar, a Rules Committee co-chair, came forth to the dais. After paying tribute to her one-time House colleague from her State, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who had passed away just this past week. Oakar formally nominated Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to be the Permanent Chair of the Convention (the officers appointed to fill certain necessary Convention positions being part of the Convention's rules) with a handful of co-chairs, all women: Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius and Texas State Senator Leticia Van de Putte.
Former Oklahoma Governor David Walters, yet another Rules Committee co-chair, came forward to announce the appointment of four vice-chairs (Mayor Michael Coleman of Columbus, Georgia; Maria Elena Durazzo of California; Governor Christine Gregoire of Washington and Congressman Robert Wexler of Florida) and the Permanent Secretary of the Convention, Alice Travis Germond, all names also contained in the Rules Committee report. Governor Walters then moved the adoption of the Rules Committee report: as with Credentials, there was a second, no debate nor discussion and, likewise, approval viva voce.
After this, Temporary Chair Howard Dean returned to the dais to announce the appointment of further Convention officers at his own discretion, such as Parliamentarians, Sergeants-at-Arms, a Doorkeeper and a Timekeeper. This was followed by a video presentation about Community Organizers, of which Barack Obama had himself once been.
After a musical interlude, Temporary Chair Dean returned to the dais with Permanent Chair Nancy Pelosi and then symbolically handed the gavel over to her. Parliamentarian Doris Matsui, a Congresswoman from California, delivered the Parliamentarians' Report and then Andrew Tobias, the Democratic National Committee Treasurer, delivered the financial report and, as he has in the past, took more than a few swings at the economic policies of the opposition, noting- for example- that, whereas the National Debt was 30% of Gross Domestic Product at the time Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, it will be 70% of GDP by the time George W. Bush leaves office next January. Tobias also contrasted Senator Obama's listening to billionaire Warren Buffett when it came to economic matters to John McCain's one-time reliance on former Republican Texas Senator Phil Gramm who had gotten into much hot water during the Primary/Caucus "season" by referring to Americans concerned about the Economy as "whiners".
Finally, Convention Secretary Alice Travis Germond came to the dais to speak and, while doing so, had all 56 delegations sign in electronically in order to establish a Quorum to do business (also required under 'Parliamentary Procedure 101'). It was then time to move onto the report of the Platform Committee:
The first portion of the Platform in summary was presented by New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid who was Platform Committee co-chair. Madrid noted, among other things, that the Platform rejected the use of illegal wiretaps, national security letters (used to investigate persons not yet charged with a crime) and, above all, torture; she also opined that the 2008 Democratic Party Platform provided for Comprehensive Immigration Reform in a way that unites this country rather than dividing it.
Platform Committee co-chair Judith McHale- a businesswoman- then presented the rest of the Platform summary, noting that the Platform includes many of the ideas of my friend Hillary Clinton (which elicited a fair amount of cheers among what was still far from a full house at the Convention). Ms. McHale scored the Bush Administration for an unnecessary war in Iraq before completing a necessary war in Afghanistan and also noted, of Democrats, that we will never put ideology above women's health. McHale then moved adoption of the Platform report. Permanent Chair Pelosi asked for a second (got it) and, once more with no debate nor discussion, the Platform report was approved viva voce.
With this, all that was described under the overarching rubric 'Convention Business' was now done-- no muss, no fuss, no rekindling of bad memories of Chicago forty years before! ;-) Now, the "fun" part of any Major Party National Convention- promoting one's own candidate while trashing the opposing Major Party- could finally get underway.
It was now 4:30 PM local time (6:30 PM on the East Coast of the US) when Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (who had already been seen in that earlier video about the recent rise of the Democrats in the Intermountain West) came to the podium to formally welcome the delegates to his city. After this, there was a video vignette under the heading 'Barack Obama in his own words' which featured remarks Obama made in a public speech in Manchester, NH back in September 2007. This was really the beginning of a session that would largely be devoted to describing who Barack Obama is and where he came from... but it had to, of course, be interspersed with "face time" for various and sundry constituencies of the Democratic Party US (which, to my mind, had the unfortunate effect of making whatever was said about Senator Obama himself [until the very end of this first day of the Convention, when the presumptive nominee's wife- Michelle Obama- would be speaking, of course] come off as rather disjointed; whatever buildup there might have been towards a clear definition of Barack Obama the man appeared, to me, to be, instead, rather "herky-jerky" as a result-- although, to be fair, whatever was being presented to the Convention before 6 PM local time was not being seen by most Americans in any event [for even the cable news networks wouldn't be starting their own coverage until then- 8 PM (Prime Time) on the East Coast of the United States], so the earlier "herky-jerkiness" of the presentation probably didn't much matter).
The first of these "constituencies" to speak before the Convention was the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Congressman Joe Baca of California, a native of New Mexico, who reminded the assembled that Faith and Family are my greatest source of strength and guidance and opined that Barack knows our struggle (that is, of the Latino community in America). Congresswoman Grace Napolitano of California declaimed that America's middle class desperately needs change and, scoring John McCain for being too much like George W. Bush- despite his maverick reputation, cited a Mexican proverb that, translated from the Spanish, goes something along the lines of "Show me who your friends are and it'll tell me who you are" (a rather interesting turn of phrase, by the way, given the controversies that surrounded Senator Obama himself during this past Spring as a result of certain comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, which the Obamas attended until these controversies forced Obama to distance himself from that congregation).
Congresswoman Napolitano was followed by Congressman Silvestre Reyes of Texas and Congressman Jose Serrano of New York who, after opining that we need to reopen the path to the middle class for those who are poorer, noted the interesting statistic that his South Bronx Congressional District is the poorest in the Nation, even though the New York City of which it is a part is the wealthiest city in the world.
The next "constituency" to be represented was that of Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America (NARAL is an acronym for 'National Abortion Rights Action League') who scored Senator McCain for seeking to ban abortions even in the cases of pregnancies resulting from incest or rape and seeking reducing, where not outright eliminating funding for Family Planning (her argument being that, if there were Family Planning, there'd be a reduced demand for abortions in the first place).
After this, the "Young Delegates" (from what I could gather, the definition was delegates to the Convention who were under 30 years of age) were presented. They came out to the strains of the 1960s hit I'm a Believer (made famous by the Monkees and penned by Neil Diamond who, ironically, did a nationally televised concert for the Millennium- as 1999 was becoming 2000 in the Mountain Time Zone- at the very same Pepsi Center in which the Democrats were now meeting) and their spokesperson was one Amanda Kubik of North Dakota.
Then we were back to the theme of "Who is Barack Obama?" when Illinois State Senator Emil Jones, Jr. came to the podium to talk about first getting to know "this skinny kid" back when he was a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago and then found himself a State Senate colleague of Obama. Jones declaimed that only Obama could deliver the change this country truly, truly needs. But the Obama biography was, once again, interrupted by yet another Democratic Party "constituency" in the person of National Education Association (NEA) president Reg Weaver who told the assembled that his organization was energized, organized and mobilized to elect Barack Obama the next President of the United States of America.
After another musical interlude, it was back to 'Biography' with, first, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan who had also served with Barack Obama in the Illinois State Senate (she noted that she sat in the desk right next to his in the State Senate chamber in Springfield). She was followed by Illinois State Comptroller Dan Hynes who had actually run (unsuccessfully, obviously!) against Obama in the 2004 Democratic US Senate Primary in the Land of Lincoln and told the assembled how, during that campaign, he had come to admire Obama and then Illinois State Treasurer Alex Giannoulis.
But then it was time for yet another "constituency", in the form of American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten who took on the 'No Child Left Behind' legacy of George W. Bush's Administration, scoring it with the comment that teachers should be partners, not pawns, in Federal education policy.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota came before the Convention to bring the topic back to Barack Obama the person, talking about how Barack Obama so easily worked with her when she first came to the Senate after the 2006 Midterm Elections. This was followed, after yet another musical interlude, by another video of 'Barack Obama in his own words'-- this time, the highlights of his Keynote Address before the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston while he was still a State Senator seeking his US Senate seat, where he said
<<There is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America; there is not a black America and a white America, a Latino America and an Asian America: there's the United States of America. The pundits-- the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red States and blue States: red States for Republicans, blue States for Democrats; but I've got news for them, too:
We worship an awesome God in the blue States and we don't like Federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red States; we coach Little League in the blue States and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and the patriots who supported the war in Iraq.
We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes-- all of us defending the United States of America.>>
It was now past 5:30 PM local time in Denver (7:30 PM on the East Coast US-- as in 7:30 "TV time") and there was now some time to kill: there was a performance by a musical guest, John Legend accompanied by the Agape Choir, followed by more video (this time about how Barack Obama used scholarships to get through college and law school and more on his work as a young community organizer in Chicago). A long musical interlude worked up a now fuller house of Convention delegates as the hour of 8 PM in the East (when the cable news networks would begin covering the gathering [the old-line 'over the air' broadcast networks- who, once upon a time, long long ago, used to offer gavel-to-gavel Convention coverage- wouldn't be checking in until 10 PM Eastern Time]) approached.
Shortly after 8 PM EDT- 6 PM at the Convention itself- the assembled were treated to something called 'Town Hall America' which was supposed to be kicking off the theme of the evening- "One Nation" (somehow, I had this feeling that the video of Obama's Keynote four years earlier would then have better served here, rather than its use as, more or less, "filler" early in the preceding half hour). The topic was the Economy and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio acted as moderator (more 'Phil Donohue' or 'Oprah' than 'Jerry Springer', of course) with a panel of four economically-related guests (including one-time Bill Clinton economic advisor Laura Tyson) answering videotaped questions from "persons in the street" from around the country (of course, this was all well choreographed)-- it was all rather dry (where it wasn't also "hokey") and seemed to have been timed for the top of the hour (while the cable news crews were doing their "scene-setting" reports from the floor).
Soon, however, Permanent Chairman and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy D'Alessandro Pelosi (not only the first female Speaker, but also the first Italian-American one, as we were all reminded in a video introduction to her segment) took to the podium as a featured speaker. Setting the tone for Party unity, Pelosi acknowledged that all Democrats salute Senator Hillary Clinton for her excellent campaign: our Party and our country has been strengthened by her candidacy but she also reminded the assembled that theirs was the Convention that will nominate Barack Obama and Joe Biden for the next President and Vice-President of the United States.
After listing the accomplishments of the Democratic Congress that took control of both its chambers in January 2007, Pelosi opined that the Republicans say John McCain is experienced: we say John McCain is experienced in being wrong. This led into a litany of differences between Obama and McCain on the issues of the day with a "responsive reading", in effect, from the audience whenever Pelosi would intone Barack Obama is right and John McCain is wrong. Citing one of the verses of the hymn 'America, the Beautiful', Pelosi referred to Senator Obama as a 21st Century patriot who sees beyond the years.
After Pelosi had finished her speech, there was a video presentation entitled 'First Time Delegates: Renewing America's Promise', followed by an appearance by Margie Perez, a New Orleans musician who had been displaced by Hurricane 'Katrina' (the 3rd anniversary of which- as regards the storm's slamming into the Gulf Coast- is this coming Friday, the 29th, by the way) which led into another video presentation narrated by- and featuring- former President Jimmy Carter about the rebuilding efforts still ongoing in the areas worst-affected by 'Katrina'. After the video, President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, the former First Lady, appeared on the stage but neither addressed the Convention.
We were now back to Obama's bio (under the rubric of 'Barack Obama: An American Story') with yet another brief video "look in" into Obama's life story, which was followed by the appearance of Maya Soetero-Ng, Obama's half-sister and a U.S. History teacher, talking about the brother with whom she grew up. She was followed by Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. who intoned that while America is not always perfect, our Union can always be perfected... America, we need Barack Obama in the White House!
There was another musical interlude, and then another video presentation (this one- under the rubric 'Giving Back 2008'- involving the Democratic Party's work with an organization called 'Homes for our Troops', which builds homes for returning disabled veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), followed by the appearance of an Indiana couple- Mike and Cheryl Fisher- who met Obama on the campaign trail going into the hotly contested Indiana Primary held back in early May, at a time when Mike Fisher was in danger of losing his job as a railroad machinist.
The Fishers were followed by Tom Balanoff, the Chicago area president of the Service Employees' International Union (SEIU)- which, while another Party "constituency", involved someone actually from Illinois who has, thereby, worked with Obama directly. Barack Obama believes that, if you go to work in the United States, you should not live in Poverty, Balanoff declaimed: John McCain looks to Wall Street and says 'the Economy's OK'; Barack Obama looks to Main Street and knows it's not!
After yet another musical interlude, it was time for Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, to introduce a video tribute to her ailing uncle, Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy of Massachusetts. During her introductory remarks, she opined that both Senator Obama and her uncle 'Teddy' had both provided words that remind us that we're all in this together (I immediately, upon hearing what Ms. Kennedy said, cast my own memory back to Senator Kennedy's speech before the Democratic Convention four years ago in Boston- the very same one in which he noted that [as I quoted him in my Commentary of this past July] "It was no accident that Massachusetts was founded as a Commonwealth- a place where authority belonged not to a single ruler but to the People themselves, joined together for the common good"- where he also said "America is a compact, a bargain, a contract. It says that all of us are connected: our fates are intertwined").
Then, after the video, something of a surprise: for out came Senator Kennedy himself, on the arm of his wife Victoria. As the Convention got ready to get underway, the word was that Kennedy had been told by his doctors to stay in Massachusetts-- yet here he was at his Party's Convention in Denver, far away from Boston... of course he was!:
It is so wonderful to be here, the Senator said, and nothing-- nothing!-- is going to keep me away from this special gathering tonight. Kennedy then talked about this being his season of hope... new hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American- north, south, east, west, young, old- will have decent quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.
One could almost feel the political adrenaline that was clearly allowing him to be up there at the podium despite his recent health problems, yet his speech was noticeably shorter than his more usual Convention speeches of the past and he closed with the following: This November, the torch will be passed to a new generation of Americans... the work begins anew, the hope rises again and the dream lives on (thereby working in both 'the torch has been passed' of his brother Jack's Inaugural Address and 'the dream never dies' of his own speech before the 1980 Democratic Convention at which he was forced to concede defeat to then-incumbent President Carter in the race for that year's nomination).
After another video presentation, Miguel del Valle, Chicago city clerk, spoke: of having to follow Ted Kennedy, he noted It's almost impossible- but I'm here! After telling of his own long-time connections to Obama (going back to when Obama was still a community organizer), he was followed by Candi Schmieder, a delegate from Iowa who, like Mike Fisher of Indiana who spoke earlier, met Obama on the 2008 campaign trail. Then came Chicago community activist Jerry Kellman who also knew Obama back when he was still a community organizer. We seemed to finally have gotten the train out of the station when it came to building a series of personal vignettes explaining just who Obama is- presumably leading up to the Senator's wife's speech- when we were treated to another (and this one rather strange) interruption:
The next speaker was Iowa Senator Tom Harkin who, humorously, began his speech in American Sign Language- with an "interpreter" speaking into the microphone on his behalf (Harkin, whose brother is deaf, is well known as an advocate for persons with disabilities), then Harkin himself actually spoke-- but not so much about Barack Obama, but rather about former Republican Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa who came to the podium to explain why, even though a Republican, he was supporting Obama. It was a fairly long, rather rambling discourse on the history of American political philosophy (my goodness!-- it was like having to listen to someone reading one of my own Commentaries!! [;-)]-- especially that 'We, the People' series I still have yet to finish as of this typing!) leading, eventually, to why Leach saw Obama (in light of all this History he outlined) as a potentially great President should he actually be elected.
Harkin had first taken the stage at exactly 10 PM Eastern (8 PM local in Denver itself)- just as the big 'over the air' networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) were now first covering the Convention; Leach finished up about 12 minutes later. Then it was time for the three children of Missouri's Senator Claire McCaskill to take the stage and introduce their mother. Echoing Obama's Keynote Address four years before, McCaskill noted that her home State was made up of people who were good, hard-working, God-loving, family-centered, blessed with an abundance of common sense and a tough streak of Harry Truman style independence... we are not a red State, we are not a blue State: we are proud to be part of the United States!
McCaskill was followed by a video presentation introducing the featured speaker of the evening- Michelle Obama herself. Her older brother, Craig Robinson (who is the new head coach of the Oregon State men's basketball team), spoke ahead of her. Then Mrs. Obama herself came out to the podium: her mission was as much to define herself as a potential First Lady as much as she might also, thereby, define her husband.
I come here as a wife, who loves my husband and believes he will be an extraordinary President and I come here as a mom, as a mom whose girls are the heart of my heart and the center of my world... their future, and all our children's future, is my stake in this election... We want our children, and all children in this Nation, to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work hard for it.
America should be a place where you can make it if you try... [Barack] spoke words that have stayed with me ever since: he talked about the world as it is and the world as it should be and he said that, all too often, we accept the distance between the two and we settle for the world as it is even when it doesn't reflect our values and aspirations, but he reminded us that we also know what the world should look like... and he urged us to believe in ourselves, to find the strength within ourselves to strive for the world as it should be and isn't that the great American story?
After Mrs. Obama had finished speaking (well in time for her remarks to be edited into 11 o'clock [10 PM Central] late local newscasts in the eastern half of the country), she was joined on the stage by her two daughters and then the Convention was treated to a 'live' video feed of the presumptive nominee himself from Kansas City, Missouri.
Now you know, Senator Obama told the Convention from the monitors in the front of the hall, why I asked her out so many times- even though she said 'no'. You want a persistent President.
There was a rather touching scene when the younger of their two daughters, enthusiastic to the hilt (as little kids can so often be), said hello to the family with whom Senator Obama was staying with in Kansas City while Obama himself was trying to remember the names of the members of that family and, for an awkward second, the presumptive nominee almost forgot where he was in mid-sentence!
The Benediction was given by Donald Miller of Oregon, after which acting Chair Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas entertained a motion to recess the Convention until 3 PM local time (5 PM Eastern [2100 UTC]) on Tuesday the 26th-- it was duly seconded, and passed viva voce...
and, with that, the first day of the 2008 Democratic National Convention came to an end.