Friday, August 21, 2020

BTRTN: Unconventional Wisdom... The Virtual Format Elevates Obamas’ Warnings and Biden’s Acceptance

Once again, it is the Democrats who embrace reality: if you are forced to host a virtual convention, how can you use that new format to maximum advantage? The Republicans – true to form – denied that reality until recently. Steve thinks they will have a very tough time matching the powerful show the Democrats just put on.

Every now and again, like a fresh gust of spring air, someone challenges and ultimately crushes long-accepted the norms and stereotypes that constitute “conventional” wisdom. Why do we do it this way? Uh, that’s how we’ve always done it!

Steve Jobs turned a cell phone into such a Swiss Army knife of technology that it’s now the exception to actually use it as a telephone. 

The Beatles decided that an “album” should be something more than 12 three-minute songs performed on tours. “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” shattered conventions, causing the Times of London critic Kenneth Tynan to call it “a decisive moment in the history of Western Civilization.”

Sometimes such moments are not the breakthrough of a genius so much as an innovative response to changed circumstances, adversity, and existential threats. While some brick and mortar companies were crushed by the internet, Netflix was willing to re-invent its entire business in order to not simply survive, but thrive.

And yes, though it took a global pandemic to force change, this week the Democratic Party took the opportunity ushered in by adversity to bring the very idea of a “party nominating convention” into the 21st Century. 

Once upon a time, nominating conventions were actually consequential business meetings, in which combatants twisted arms, stabbed backs, and wrangled delegates to forge an agreement upon the party’s nominee.  But the last time that a major party held a convention that was not decided on the first ballot was in 1952. No one under the age of 67 was even alive the last time that a nominating convention really needed to be convened. And you’d probably have to be, well, Joe Biden’s age to actually remember it.

Following the 1972 presidential race, there was a dramatic rise in the number of states holding primaries, and this has repeatedly created a situation like 2020: large fields of candidates are rapidly winnowed as poorly performing contestants lose the oxygen of donors. Often the field is cut to two viable candidates, all but guaranteeing that one will emerge with the majority of delegates required for nomination. It’s over before the first delegate arrives at the convention center. 

The conventions, therefore, morphed from food fights into flabby theater, in which parties took advantage of prime time television coverage to parade the also-rans, rising stars, and elder states-persons to the podium to create an aura of unity. They became utterly predictable and visually identical: a big arena, filled with signs, people in silly hats, and a stream of speakers who run the gamut from milquetoast to rare brilliance. They usually run late, causing the most critical speeches to air after the East Coast has gone to bed. Anoint, drop the stupid balloons, rinse, and repeat, twice every four years.

Political conventions are thus a classic case of preserving a ritual structure long after the original reason or purpose of that structure had been forgotten or rendered obsolete, sort of like wearing a tie or watching a television program during the exact time slot that it is actually broadcast. 

As the 2020 convention season approached, Republicans desperately sought to preserve the tradition. They fought tooth and nail to hold a no-mask, no-social-distance traditional convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, and then stormed off to Florida when they couldn’t get their way. It was not until July 23 that Donald Trump finally realized that hosting a traditional convention in a coronavirus hotspot was political cyanide. He finally relented, leaving the Republican Party scrambling with just weeks to program a four night virtual convention.

Democrats, however – accustomed to dealing with fact and reality -- grasped early on that their 2020 convention could not possibly look, feel, smell, or act like those of a bygone era. The Democrats set out to plan a virtual format that would be authentic to the times, to the actual purpose, and to the future.

The verdict is in: it worked. In some ways, it worked out even more brilliantly than Democrats could have imagined.

The speeches of three people  -- Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden – defined this convention. It felt as if each actually benefited enormously from the quiet, intense focus caused by the stark, no-audience environments, which enabled us to listen ever more closely to the astonishing candor, dire warnings, and clear-headed vision. It is actually hard to imagine these speeches working as effectively in front of boisterous throngs of cheering crowds.

And yet the true stars of this convention were not simply the A-list speakers. In 2020, the Democrats humbly took their convention to the homes and lives of their people, rather than the norm of using television to provide their faithful with a peak from a distance at a big stadium party. As a result, we were mesmerized by a brilliant young woman from Arizona who had lost her father to COVID-19, an Hispanic woman who carried her gravely ill daughter across a river to reach the United States, and a young man with a stutter from New Hampshire. 

If you were to pick a moment when we suddenly realized that this was going to be a very unconventional convention, it was when Kristin Urquiza of Arizona began speaking early on Monday evening. You’ve probably heard the crucial soundbyte:

“My day was a healthy 65 year-old. His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump — and for that he paid with his life.”

If that’s all you heard, google her full comments. For months, so many politicians, journalists, and pundits have tried convey the fact that the vast majority of American coronavirus deaths have been needless, and are the full and complete responsibility of Donald Trump and the spineless Republican hacks who mindlessly spout his feckless and fact-less rhetoric. In two minutes, Ms. Urquiza brilliantly, unsparingly, and unambiguously prosecutes what is for all intents and purposes the 175,000 second-degree murder charges of which Trump and his administration should stand accused. 

But it was a different quote from Mr. Urquiza that made an even bigger impact on me, in which she brilliantly integrated the inherent racism of Trump’s deception about the virus: 

“The coronavirus has made it clear that there are two Americas… The America that Donald Trump lives in, and the America that my father died in.”

Google it, listen to it, and share it. And kudos to a Democratic Party that saw the opportunity to bring their convention to the people, rather than merely bringing people to their convention. 

The “virtual” format gave Michelle and Barack Obama the permission to not have to worry about motivating and energizing a huge crowd, and to not have to be upbeat and optimistic. It gave them the freedom to openly convey their true moods and to express their deep, chilling fears for the future of our country. Each, in their own earnest, passionate way, expressed their profound worry, disappointment, concern, and the seriousness of this moment in our nation’s history. Delivering such a message to a roaring live audience simply would not have been as effective.  

The first superstar performance capped off Monday night, when Michelle Obama spoke with a steely urgency about the need to defeat Donald Trump. The former First Lady has certainly equaled and in some ways eclipsed her husband in the role as the grounded, plain-speaking voice of America’s better angels, powered by soaring emotional intelligence and an intuitive feel for the national mood. She chose Monday night to provide razor sharp clarity into her 2016 mantra that “when others go low, we go high:”

“But let's be clear: going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty. Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top. Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation under God, and if we want to survive, we've got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences.”

Michelle Obama summarily dismissed Donald Trump as “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.” But it was what followed that was the darkest comment of the entire convention: 

So if you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this: if you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can; and they will if we don't make a change in this election. If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.” 

Like our lives depend on it. Michelle Obama chooses her words very, very carefully. Think hard about what she was saying. Give her the respect of taking her literally.

The roll call vote to nominate Joe Biden was another a good example of “bringing the convention to the people.” One by one, each state was afforded a rapid local broadcast – often live – that allowed the party to dramatically showcase its diversity, passion, and solidarity with Joe Biden. 

Tuesday evening was the most wobbly and uneven of the four, but it ended on a powerful note. In yet another example of how the Democrats used the “virtual” format to their advantage, they placed Jill Biden – a former school teacher – in a classroom made empty by the impact of the coronavirus. Dr. Biden spoke with a gritty dignity about her own life and work, and her admiration for her husband. She told the story of how Joe Biden’s first wife and infant daughter had been killed in a car accident, and of the hard work, compassion, and commitment required to heal a shattered family. Dr. Biden then pivoted elegantly to make the case that her husband had therefore proven that he possesses the empathy, life experience, and determination to do the same for a nation that has also been shattered… by political polarization and a president who feeds division.

Wednesday’s line up of speakers leading up to the acceptance speech by Kamala Harris included party stars Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Elizabeth Warren. All were strong. But the soliloquy by former President Barack Obama was the moment that should live for the ages.

We are used to Barack Obama’s breezy approach to a crowd. He likes to warm things up with a few well-turned zingers, and only a few presidents -- Reagan and Kennedy come to mind -- had a comparable gift of comedic timing and delivery. We are used to his brilliant smile, and we are accustomed to watching him gather momentum, stoking up the audience’s excitement and enthusiasm, peaking on a crescendo of hope and optimism. 

From the moment Barack Obama began speaking, we knew this was different. Very different. 

Barack Obama wanted us to know that the current president of the United States represents a mortal threat to our Democracy. He was grim. He was frank. He was pained. He was urgent, offering this brutal assessment of Donald Trump:

“I have sat in the Oval Office with both of the men who are running for president. I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies. I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously, that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care…

“But he never did. For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves…

Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe: 170,000 Americans dead, millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.”

This stunningly frank indictment morphed into an urgent plea, as Obama implored the nation to grasp the gravity of this moment in history. 

“..So I am also asking you to believe in your own ability — to embrace your own responsibility as citizens — to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure. Because that’s what’s at stake right now. Our democracy. Look, I understand why many Americans are down on government. The way the rules have been set up and abused in Congress make it easy for special interests to stop progress…

"Well, here’s the point: this president and those in power — those who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your cynicism. They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. That’s how they win. That’s how they get to keep making decisions that affect your life, and the lives of the people you love. That’s how the economy will keep getting skewed to the wealthy and well-connected, how our health systems will let more people fall through the cracks. That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all.”

How utterly unprecedented and astonishing is this? We have never witnessed one President of the United States urgently warning the country that his successor is bent on destroying our democracy. 

In a modern indoor stadium filled with energized partisans eager to cheer at full throttle, it is hard to imagine that Barack Obama’s speech would have had the same raw, visceral intensity. If anyone could have pulled that off, there’s no doubt Barack Obama could have done it. But having Obama direct his quiet, deadly serious message solely through a stark screen at viewers like me at home was riveting. It was scary. 

And that was the intent. 

Barack Obama never said this out loud, but what I heard was this: yes, the coronavirus is terrible, and you are right to be worried about. But we will beat it. But the future of our democracy is not as certain… and that crisis is far bigger, far more consequential, and far more urgent. 

It was tough for Kamala Harris to follow one of the greatest orators of our time, but she was warm, confident, engaging, and flashed the steely resolve Democrats are counting on in order for her to complement the less combative Biden. "I've fought for children and survivors of sexual assault. I've fought against transnational gangs. I took on the biggest banks and helped take down one of the biggest for-profit colleges. I know a predator when I see one." Harris is already proving to be an exceptional choice for VP.

On Thursday night, the Democrats brought it all home. Quite literally. 

First things first: the evening's “host,” Julia Louis-Dreyfuss was brilliant. Early on, she noted that Joe Biden goes to church so often that he “doesn’t even need tear gas and a bunch of federalized troops to get him there.” This, in and of itself, was a breakthrough. Oddly, the Democratic Party has never invited any of the late night comedians – Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, John Stewart, and Trevor Noah, who for nearly fifteen years have been some of the most effective voices of the party -- to formally address their convention. That joke from Julia Louis-Dreyfuss was the kind of scalpel cut you find in a Seth Meyers monologue every single night. If you are in the fight of your life, bring every weapon you've got.

Joe Biden’s one-time rivals for the Democratic nomination shared a call to reflect on their admiration for Joe Biden. Sure, the multiple screen "ZOOM call" visual was hokey, having been used in countless television commercials since April, but the banter among Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders and the gang was warm, genuine, and filled with very human examples of Joe Biden’s empathy, care, and devotion. 

And then it was Joe Biden’s turn. My heart began to race. I was nervous. A bit terrified, to be honest. 

Public speaking has never been Joe Biden’s long suit. Readers of our blog may recall some particularly harsh critiques of Biden’s debate performances, in which we characterized him as “Grandpa Faux Pas,” and needled his tendency to rush headlong into sentences devoid of syntax, direction, or even destination, mouth in fifth gear while the brain idled. We were nervous last night. One slip, and a week’s worth of astonishing quality could be buried in a moment, providing devastating ammo to a Fox News blooper reel on continuous loop until November 3. Please, Joe. Please

Joe Biden chose Thursday night to give what was not only the greatest speech of his life, but one of the most  memorable acceptance speeches in history. 

And yes, in its own way, even Joe Biden benefited enormously from the virtual format. The fact is that Joe Biden has never been the guy whose long suit is crowds. He is a master of the one-to-one. And once again, the format forced by a global pandemic was leveraged to full advantage. When not interrupted at every pause by overly eager crowds, and when not under the murderous pressure of an overwhelming in-person audience, Biden was freed to speak to us as if we were each that elevator operator, the Amtrak conductor, or the grandmother whose life had been personally touched by a man defined by his own tragedy, his resulting empathy, and his other-worldly resilience. 

All the people who worried that Joe Biden’s age had sapped his intellect and his physical wherewithal for the Presidency no doubt felt a double shot of relief as Biden delivered his address with confidence, resolve, and a careful modulation of tone from moments of calm and empathy to rising cadences of purposefulness and determination.  

From the outset, Biden defined his vision for the Presidency in the sharpest relief from Donald Trump:

“I am a proud Democrat and I will be proud to carry the banner of our party into the general election. So, it with great honor and humility that I accept this nomination for President of the United States. But while I will be a Democratic candidate, I will be an American president. I will work as hard for those who didn’t support me as I will for those who did. That’s the job of a president. To represent all of us, not just the base of our party. This is not a partisan moment. This must be an American moment.”

For a man known to occasionally ramble, Biden actually framed the election in at once the most comprehensive and yet succinct way we have heard yet:

“This is a life-changing election that will determine America’s future for a very long time. Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot.”

Similarly, Biden articulated the priorities of his presidency in a binary contrast to Donald Trump:

“As president, the first step I will take will be to get control of the virus that’s ruined so many lives. Because I understand something this president doesn’t. We will never get our economy back on track, we will never get our kids safely back to school, and we will never have our lives back, until we deal this this virus.”

Biden concluded with a definition of our mission that at once echoed the idealistic close to John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural, but was made more immediate by the format of a virtual convention and by the overt use of the words “you and I together.” Not a speech to a boisterous convention… it was an appeal to you and to me, personally: 

“With passion and purpose, let us begin – you and I together, one nation, under God – united in our love for American and united in our love for each other. For love is more powerful than hate. Hope is more powerful than fear. Light is more powerful than dark. This is our moment. This is our mission. May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here tonight as love and hope and light joined the battle for the soul of the nation. And this is a battle that we, together, will win. I promise you.”

Next week, the Republicans will have their turn. Unlike Steve Jobs, the Beatles, and Netflix, the Republicans clung to the old, the traditional, the outdated -- in this case, the idea that they could have a typical nominating convention. When North Carolina would not let them, they turned to the idiot governor of Florida. Now, as they scramble to retool their convention to a virtual world, there convention is likely to be an apt metaphor for the Trump administration: those who struggle to preserve an old world order, those who are blind to societal change, and those who resist the future are inevitably the ones who are crushed by it. 

This week, the Democrats showed unconventional wisdom. 

Let the battle for the future begin.

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  1. Steve, Tom and Wendy, Throughout the virtual convention my expectations were met then exploded with the humanity revealed with this format and the individuals who participated. It was so hopeful in the midst of the despair Trump has brought us to. WE HAVE TO WIN! HE HAS TO GO!

  2. Democratic convention was not at all inspiring. It was scripted and lacked any significant policy discussions. Biden's speech was adequate but demonstrated that even with 4 days of practice he has difficulty reading off a tele-prompter. Unless the democrats addressed policy issues and contrast in a positive fashion with President Trump they will lose badly. At this point it is difficult to see that Biden has the mental capacity to do what needs to be done. If Biden actually debates Trump and does well his chances will go up considerably. Otherwise 4 more years of Trump.

    1. Obviously you were watching from the same planet, in some distant alternate-reality universe, as Trump and QAnon. Can't wait to see the GOP convention featuring Roger Stone, Mike Flynn, Scott Baio, Vladdy Putin and the ghost of Jeffrey Epstein! And remember Trump's campaign slogan: "Person - Man - Woman - Camera - TV". By the way, how IS the weather in Moscow these days?

  3. Also notable about the brilliance of Obama’s soliloquy: His historic approach has secured the legacy of his presidency. Delivered without an ounce of the insecurity and defensiveness that defines Donald Trump.


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