Monday, August 25th, 2008 :: Day 1: Looking Forward

Michelle Obama did some of the work of repairing the party’s fissures last night. Her speech was a corrective against Democratic infighting and a strike against further Republican charges of elitism.

Hillary Clinton’s race-baiting advisor Mark Penn established the Obama-as-scary-foreigner scenario early in the primaries. So tonight’s speeches—beginning with a speech by Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, running through Ted Kennedy’s surprise appearance and Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill’s introduction of Michelle’s brother, Craig Robinson—repeated theme words like “American story” and “American dream”.

There are probably still Hillary voters or undecided women who finished watching her speech—and Sasha Obama’s scene-stealing mic moments during the crowd-pleasing family teleconference—with hardened hearts.

But the Obamas do not want to let this nomination victory be about bitterness and looking backward. Michelle shouted out Hillary and the anniversary of women’s suffrage. She evoked MLK and the March of Washington. Both were, in this context, American stories, American victories.

What was most notable was Michelle’s tone. There was no trace of stridency, a punditocracy caricature. Instead, she was by turns, soothing, soaring, and full of gratitude.

And when Michelle drove it home, with what my son’s teacher calls “little moments”—the meaning of a parent’s goodnight kiss, the portrait of Barack Obama driving their new baby home with supreme caution—she left many in the hall in tears, including, let’s not front, many grown men. Forget all those TV shots of weeping women.

The girls came unscripted—Malia wiping her tears away with a big hand, Sasha holding the mic like a grudge. They became unwitting icons: they may be to the hip-hop generation the equivalent of what Caroline and John Kennedy were to the boomers.

This afternoon, the future was alive at the Congressional Black Caucus’ Young Leaders forum. The panel had its star appeal. Kerry Washington and Will.I.Am both gave generational conversion stories that would be echoed in the closing lines of Michelle’s speech—stories in which they “decided to stop doubting and to start dreaming.”

Washington, as moderator, also introduced a number of new young leaders: 29-year old Georgia assemblywoman Alisha Thomas Morgan; 29-year old Tallahassee city commissioner Andrew Gillum; hip-hop activist and pastor Reverend Tony Lee; and businessman and motivational speaker Ephren Taylor.

But the 24-year old Bakari Sellers, elected 2 years ago to the South Carolina House of Representatives, closed it down with a speech that seemed to capture the spirit of the moment—a sense, especially among young African American Democrats, that now is the time, that Barack Obama has finally legitimized the value and potency of youth.

He recalled his father’s story of the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, the deadly university shooting at South Carolina State that predated Kent State. “The South Carolina motto is ‘Dum Spiro Spero’, ‘While I breathe, I hope’,” he said, linking it to an Obama quote. “In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.”

Sellers drew Obama-esque images, linking the laid-off postindustrial worker in San Francisco to the rural teacher in Marlboro, South Carolina, to the accountant in New Orleans who has turned carpenter because no one else will rebuild.

“There are those who will say that we are too young, too inexperienced, and too idealistic. They’ll tell us that it’s too hard. They’ll tell us that you can’t make people care. They’ll tell us that one day when we’re older we may understand,” he said. “But we know better and America knows better.”

Just check Sasha Obama. When her dad asked her what she thought of her mother’s speech, she answered, “I think she did good”. She didn’t stutter. Her little voice seemed rich with pride, but also a little bit of insouciance, even a little bit of sass, as if to say just give me a little bit and then you can ask me what mommy thinks of my speech.

Perhaps this election might simply be about making it good to be young again.

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