I arrived in Denver on a plane with Cindy Lauper. Someone told me she was on the plane and asked where she was. I said I haven’t seen her since 1984, so how would I know what she looks like now? Turned out she hasn’t changed much since her glory days. I rushed from the airport into the crush of people crowding into a gated area where a phalanx of police officers and secret service personnel checked bags and credentials. By the time I passed through security and hit the convention floor, Michelle Obama was on stage.
MO’s speech looked much better when I watched it later on TV. In person, she appeared through two huge screens installed high above the crowd. Her intense gaze through these Jumbotrons was slightly Orwellian. MO’s speech contained very few applause lines, so in person the crowd seemed under-enthused because it was. On TV, however, MO looked and sounded commanding yet graceful, and the ripples of applause that occasionally punctuated her speech seemed profound. Everything that occurs on stage at the Pepsi Center this week has been calibrated exclusively for TV audiences. The convention crowd is just a prop.
The thrust of MO’s speech was predictable. For months she has been dogged by GOP attacks centering on her infamous “for the first time I’m proud of my country” remarks. For weeks during the primaries, rumors circulated that she may have used the word “whitey” during an angry tirade she delivered years ago, and that conservative operatives have some videotape of it. Thus MO’s speech was calculated to highlight her patriotism and the values she supposedly shares with “average” (read: white) Americans. The Obama campaign also REPLACEed a fairly clever applause line praising Hillary Clinton in hopes of softening memories of ugly moments like this.
MO’s speech concluded with an unexpected, technically innovate split-screen satellite link-up that joined her with Barack, seated in the living room of an expressionless, silent family of white Middle Americans, and their youngest daughter, Sasha, who leapt onstage. Sasha seemed cute and precocious as she interjected a few questions (“where are you daddy?”), and crowd let out a collective “awww.” The family schlock moments that lard every party convention are usually good times to go out to the kitchen and have yourself a snack, but racial undertones made this one uniquely captivating. The Obamas as an accomplished, ambitious black family safe enough for jittery white Americans who may have never had black friends or even acquaintances will be a prominent theme for the next three nights.
I spoke to some pro-Obama liberal operatives and media figures about the Obama campaign’s hamhanded strategic outreach to blue collar whites. “Well, they’ve got to do that,” was the response I received from almost all of them. But I worry that introducing post-racial themes, however effectively, could be seen as overcompensation, and could invite more damaging attacks on Obama’s character. I was reminded while watching MO speak of the theme of the ’04 DNC: John Kerry and his swiftboat mates marching on stage and “reporting for duty.” These images were calculated to present Kerry and the Democrats as strong on national security in a time of war, but ultimately backfired, opening Kerry up to Karl Rove’s withering attacks. By responding defensively to Rove’s attacks, as the Obama campaign has done in the face of McCain’s mocking web ads, Kerry allowed the swiftboat narrative to gain traction.
Now that the Democrats have put Obama’s post-racial image in the convention spotlight, the Republicans have an opportunity to open up a cultural line of attack that could prove more incendiary than the commercials they have already unveiled. The Obama campaign needs to use more energy defining John McCain than redefining their own candidate against the template of negative character attacks. This defensive posture, marked by post-racial and post-partisan platitudes, will likely lead to defeat.
Interestingly, many of the Democratic ops, bloggers and columnists I have spoken to are not yet confident about an Obama victory. Joe Trippi expressed to me extreme disappointment with the Obama campaign’s refusal to respond with equal intensity to McCain’s attacks. Paul Begala made similar comments to me, but said the Obama camp is using McCain’s failure to remember how many houses he owns effectively. Undoubtedly when Hillary speaks tonight she will assail McCain by linking him to Bush. She was the only candidate who routinely attacked Bush during the primaries, displaying her understanding of how the Republican brand and Bush legacy would tarnish McCain in the general. Joe Biden will also go on the warpath against McCain. But Obama needs to stop delegating surrogates to attack, abandon his post-partisan posture, and do it himself when he speaks on Thursday. He must explain to America why any nominee of the Republican Party is radical and dangerous.
While I was on the convention floor I talked to Bob Schieffer about the campaign. During our conversation I asked him about Katie Couric’s remark that sexism was a pervasive factor in the media’s coverage of Hillary Clinton. Schieffer dismissed her comments out of pocket. “Katie’s wrong on this one,” he told me. “Hillary didn’t lose because of sexism, she lost because her campaign was not being run effectively.” Since Couric was broadcasting 40 yards away, I walked over and shouted out Schieffer’s comments to her, asking her for a response. She pulled a Reagan on the helicopter, pretending that she couldn’t hear me. Then she went back to interviewing Cindy Lauper.
I videotaped most of my interviews, and am hoping to post some of them shortly. I’m learning Final Cut Pro on the spot, so this may take longer than I want. Now I’m off to catch the tail end of some day events, then hit the convention floor again to report on Hillary’s speech and the attendant Hillary-Obama tensions.
Outside the convention is also incredibly interesting. Iraq Veterans Against the War were conducting patrols in the streets of downtown Denver today. Tomorrow, I plan to film some of the street theater that has accompanied the convention. More later…