DENVER – After an emotional speech by an ailing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the face of the Democratic Party shifted on Monday night to a new generation of leaders, as Michelle Obama opened the Democratic National Convention with a tribute to her husband and a call to the country to listen “to our hopes instead of our fears,” and “to stop doubting and to start dreaming.”
Seeking to ground Sen. Barack Obama in the experience of America’s working class while recapturing the lofty ideals that propelled him toward the Democratic presidential nomination, Michelle Obama’s family-themed speech was the climax of a dramatic opening day for a political party confident it can capture the White House but still struggling to lay aside its divisions. A weak economy and a war in Iraq now in its sixth year have offered Democrats and their young candidate an ideal political environment in which to push for widespread change. But Obama has yet to close the deal with the electorate, or even some Democrats who backed his primary opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But once the curtain raised on Denver’s raucous Pepsi Center, the party appeared poised to come together. Delegates cheered every mention of Clinton and gave the same treatment to Obama’s running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., of Delaware, and the party’s 2004 nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry, of Massachusetts. Kennedy, who has a brain tumor but appeared spry in a surprise appearance, offered a poignant moment of reflection on the last time a youthful Democrat won the White House. To thunderous applause, he promised to be present in the Senate in January to greet a new Democratic president.
“The work begins anew. The hope rises again, and the dream lives on,” he said, echoing his speech from the 1980 Democratic convention in which he was denied the party’s nomination.
Michelle Obama also did her part to try to heal the lingering wounds of the long struggle for the nomination when she recognized Clinton, “who put those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, so that our daughters – and our sons – can dream a little bigger and aim a little higher.”
But the stream of new faces – including Michelle Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson, and freshman Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, one of the candidate’s fiercest supporters – and a rousing anthem from John Legend, who helped craft the viral music videos that have powered the Obama movement – signaled the torch was changing hands. Caroline Kennedy tried to bridge that generational shift when she told the crowd, “I have never had someone inspire me the way people tell me my father inspired them, but I do now: Barack Obama.”
When Michelle Obama took to the podium, she was greeted with sustained applause and a sea of blue “Michelle” placards.
“Barack doesn’t care where you’re from, or what your background is, or what party – if any – you belong to. That’s not how he sees the world,” she said. “He knows that thread that connects us – our belief in America’s promise, our commitment to our children’s future – is strong enough to hold us together as one nation.”
After she finished, daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, met her onstage, where they were soon joined by her husband via a video link from Kansas City, Mo., where he watched the speech at the home of Jim and Alicia Girardeau. “You were unbelievable,” he said, “and you look pretty cute,” to which Sasha replied, “Thanks.”
Michelle Obama’s task was to reintroduce her husband to the nation as the candidate most capable of responding to the struggles of ordinary Americans, weary of war and beset by debt, division and fears of decline.
“Even though he had this funny name, even though he’d grown up all the way across the continent, in Hawaii, his family was so much like mine,” she recalled of the man who courted her as a young lawyer. “He was raised by grandparents who were working-class folks just like my parents, and by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills just like we did. And like my family, they scrimped and saved so that he could have opportunities they never had themselves. And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.”
Standing “where the current of history meets this new tide of hope,” the woman who would be the first black first lady looked ahead to an evening when her daughters would tell their children about the 2008 election, and “how this time, in this great country – where a girl from the South Side of Chicago can go to college and law school, and the son of a single mother from Hawaii can go all the way to the White House – we committed ourselves to building the world as it should be.”
Indeed, the anti-Republican red meat was left for an unlikely source, soft-spoken former GOP congressman Jim Leach, of Iowa, who hailed Obama as “a transcendent candidate” as he criticized his own party.
“The party that once emphasized individual rights has gravitated in recent years toward regulating values,” Leach said. “The party of military responsibility has taken us to war with a country that did not attack us.” Campaigning in Iowa, Obama tried to ease his party’s divisions, conceding that “there are going to be some of Sen. Clinton’s supporters who we’re going to have to work hard to persuade to come on board – that’s not surprising.” But, he added, “if you take a look this week, I am absolutely convinced that both Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton understand the stakes.”
But the nerves were not easily calmed ahead of Sen. Clinton’s speech on Tuesday and former president Bill Clinton’s appearance on Wednesday. Hillary Clinton addressed the New York delegation at a breakfast in the morning. But while supporters waved signs declaring “Hillary Made History,” the senator’s focus was on the future.
“We were not all on the same side as Democrats, but we are now,” she said. “We are united and we are together and we are determined.”
Clinton is expected to release her delegates to Obama on today, a symbolic gesture that reduces the prospects for major disruptions when the roll is called to nominate the senator from Illinois, a historic moment when Obama will become the first black politician to head a major party’s national ticket.
The campaign of Republican Sen. John McCain did its best to foment unrest, releasing a new advertisement featuring Wisconsin delegate Debra Bartoshevich declaring herself “a proud Hillary Clinton Democrat” who for the first time is supporting a Republican, McCain.
“A lot of Democrats will vote McCain,” she says in the spot. “It’s okay, really.”
Clinton repudiated the ad in her appearance before the New York delegation, saying: “I’m Hillary Clinton, and I do not approve that message.”