A strange new political creature drew its first breath on Monday night. The most unconventional of Democratic national conventions was part earnest telethon, part two-hour commercial, part awkward family Zoom call.
There will be plenty of armchair critics, but overall party leaders will be pleased to have projected unity in diversity, swerved past major technical glitches and finished on the grace note of Michelle Obama, who delivered what amounted to an alternative state of the union address.
As in so much else in 2020, we were in uncharted territory. No raucous cheers, no balloons descending from ceilings, no noisy protests on the sweaty conference floor – all forgone as the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep across the US.
Instead, Latina actor and activist Eva Longoria was an accomplished host (“Trump desperately needs the suburban housewives but Biden beat him to the Desperate Housewives,” joked comedian Stephen Colbert).
The glossy videos that normally play as a backdrop to every convention, ignored by many, were now thrust into the foreground. Curiously, this had the effect of making politicians shrink in stature and ordinary citizens grow. The highlights of the evening were not boiler plate speeches – which cried out for the kind of artificial crowd noise used for TV sport – but searing first person testimony from the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic and racial injustice.
Kristin Urquiza told how her father, who had voted from Trump, went to a karaoke bar in Arizona after its stay-at-home order was lifted. A few weeks later he was in hospital with Covid-19 and, after “five agonising days”, died in intensive care with a nurse holding his hand.
“My dad was a healthy 65-year-old,” she said. “His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump and for that he paid with his life … When I cast my vote for Joe Biden, I will do it for my dad.”
As a gut punch, it was reminiscent of Khizr Khan, the father of an American Muslim and army captain killed in Iraq, excoriating Trump at the Democratic convention in 2016. An authentic voice from the heart rising above the others.
The family of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis, called for a moment of silence. Floyd’s brother, Philonise, said: “George should be alive today. Breonna Taylor should be alive today. Ahmaud Arbery should be alive today. Eric Garner should be alive today. Stephon Clark, Atatiana Jefferson, Sandra Bland – they should all be alive today.”
Another moving intervention came from another non-politician. Four years ago Michelle Obama, the then first lady, delivered one of the most visceral ripostes to the nascent scourge of Trumpism before a crowd that cheered, whooped and openly wept. This time, wearing a gold necklace with word “vote” spelled out, she sat alone in a room with plants, a photo, a Biden sign just out of focus, a candle burning on a table. The only applause came afterwards from supporters watching via streaming.
But the speech was no less powerful in its way: a plea for empathy from a patriot who gave the impression of transcending politics, more disappointed in her country than angry at it. “Let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can,” Obama said, “Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.”
Obama was the unifying figure at the end of a night that included both John Kasich, a former Republican governor of Ohio, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-declared democratic socialist who will finish runner up to Biden in the Democratic primary.
The virtual format ensured there could be no repeat of the pro-Sanders protests and chants of “Bernie! Bernie!” at the 2016 convention that signalled all was not well with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. But perhaps that wouldn’t have happened anyway, given Sanders’ warmer relationship with Biden and the way Trump’s existential threat can concentrate minds.
Sitting before a giant stockpile of firewood and seeming just a whisker away from his Larry David doppelgänger on Saturday Night Live, Sanders acknowledged he disagrees with Biden’s health care plan yet pointed to its positive aspects. He went on: “As long as I am here, I will work with progressives, with moderates and yes, with conservatives, to preserve this nation from a threat that so many of our heroes fought and died to defeat.”
Kasich posed at a crossroads as he made a clunky metaphorical point about America being at a crossroads. “I’m sure there are Republicans and independents who couldn’t imagine crossing over to support a Democrat; they fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind,” he said. “I don’t believe that, because I know the measure of the man: reasonable, faithful, respectful. And you know, no one pushes Joe around.”
The impression was of a party that, for now at least, has buried its internal squabbles because of the urgent need to stop Trump. Joe Lockhart, a former White House press secretary under Bill Clinton, tweeted: “Lots of talk about the Democratic party needing to unite the party at the #DemConvention I went to my first Democratic convention in 1972 and I’ve never seen the party more united then we are tonight.”
No less clear was the diversity of speakers across age, disability, gender, sexuality and race – a vivid contrast from Republicans, who hold their convention next week. It was manifest in the politicians and also in film montages, including young people from each state singing the national anthem – a smart use of the new technological constraints, culminating in the singers’ faces forming stars on the US flag.
There were some glitches during live segments but nothing too serious. As Rick Telesz, a farmer from Volant, Pennsylvania, repented voting for Trump, a door could be heard creaking in the background. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s teleprompter did not quite align with her camera. Congressman Jim Clyburn had to start twice and had a mild camera wobble. It could have been much worse, and various musical interludes passed off smoothly.
A peculiar, policy-light opening night in this most peculiar of times. Like watching a stage play online, it offered a flavour but was no match for being there; so much for cutting down on screen time.
Tim Alberta, chief political correspondent of Politico, wrote on Twitter: “You know the worst part of a virtual convention? Thousands of reporters, flacks and party officials who’d otherwise be busy on site have nothing to do but live-tweet it.”