Critic's Notebook: Bernie Who? Michelle Obama, Sarah Silverman Steal Democratic Convention Spotlight
Obama delivered by far the most powerful speech, while Silverman called out Bernie or Bust-ers with one memorable jab.
The opening night of the Democratic National Convention definitively proved once and for all that a First Lady deserves to be President of the United States.
I'm talking, of course, about Michelle Obama.
Delivering the most powerful speech in an evening filled with more drama than usual for a convention's opening lap, Michelle handily repaid Bill Clinton for the stirring address he gave four years ago that re-energized her husband's re-election campaign. Providing a passionate endorsement of Hillary in the most personal terms, Michelle showed that she's more than a match for Barack when it comes to soaring oratory.
Introduced by a laudatory video produced by J.J. Abrams — the Democrats don’t fool around when it comes to exploiting their show business connections — Michelle cannily made her children, and the nation's children, the theme of her address. Like any mother anxiously sending off her kids to a new school, she talked about the anxiety of watching Malia and Sasha head for their first day of classes "in black SUVs filled with big men with guns." And she stressed the importance of electing someone worthy of "the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives."
She praised Hillary as she's never done publicly before, commending her for her indomitability after losing the presidential nomination eight years earlier.
"She didn't get angry or demoralized," she pointed out. "Hillary didn't pack up and go home."
Michelle also took determined aim at Donald Trump, although never once mentioning him by name. But her barely veiled description of a thin-skinned figure handling the nuclear codes was enough to trigger a Dr. Strangelove flashback.
She also painted an inspiring portrait of America's ability to make progress. "I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves," she said, making clear how far America has come (whichever speechwriter penned that line deserves a big fat raise).
(BTW, if you missed Michelle's speech, not to worry. If Trump wins, you'll have the opportunity to hear Melania delivering it four years from now.)
The real main event, of course, was Bernie Sanders. Things didn't look so good for the Democrats going into the convention, with leaked e-mails providing solid evidence that, yes, the system was actually rigged against Bernie. (The theory that the Russians were behind the leak raises the tantalizing question of whether it was engineered by Vladimir Putin himself, perhaps in an effort to help Trump win the presidency so the two men could vacation together, riding horses bare-chested, while their younger wives look on admiringly.) Democratic Committee Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned in the aftermath, and loud demonstrations took place both in and outside the arena.
But Bernie managed to pull things together with his speech unequivocally endorsing Hillary, even if he spent an awfully long time talking about … himself. Receiving the longest and loudest ovation of the evening, he began with a victory lap in which he detailed the accomplishments of his campaign and thanked his wildly enthusiastic supporters, many of them tearing up as he spoke. He also boasted about the large number of delegates his campaign had amassed.
"I look forward to your voting during the roll call tomorrow night," he said with a wicked gleam in his eye, provoking a momentary fear that he would go all Ted Cruz on the party.
"We have begun a political revolution to transform America, and that revolution continues!" he thundered.
He did eventually get around to his required duty, saying, "Based on her ideas and leadership, Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States." He then espoused a series of policy positions so far left that it was easy to imagine Hillary watching uncomfortably from her hotel room and yelling at the screen, "Uh, Bernie, hold on a minute!"
The evening was filled with other heavy hitters. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren declared, 'I'm with Hillary!" before launching into a passionate denunciation of the Republican Party.
"To every Republican in Congress who said no," she warned, referring to their votes against financial assistance for the poor and middle-class, "this November, the American people are coming for you!"
Warren looks and sounds mild-mannered, like your favorite aunt who makes especially delicious homemade chocolate-chip cookies. But put her on a stage and she's suddenly on steroids, ripping apart her political opponents like the Hulk.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was another standout, garnering huge cheers for a full-throttle speech that at times seemed like a K-Tel collection of the Democratic Party's greatest hits. His theme was "unity," which also happens to be the title of his recently published book, and he spoke so much about "love" in America that you feared the convention would turn into a giant orgy. But his good vibes didn't prevent him from vigorously attacking Trump, citing such failures as his business busts in Atlantic City, something of which Booker has local experience.
"I'm from Jersey!" the senator proclaimed, although he didn't specify which exit.
Unlike the Republican gathering, which resembled the world's largest Shriners convention, the Democrats were a rainbow coalition of diversity. And if the GOP event made you fearful and anxious, the Democratic one made you feel … verklempt. There were more than a few moments that brought tears to your eyes, including the appearances of 11-year-old Karla Ortiz, the daughter of undocumented immigrants, who talked about her fear of her parents being deported; and Anastasia Somoza, an advocate for the intellectually and developmentally disabled, who was born with cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia.
Speaking from her wheelchair, Somoza had harsh words for Trump, who during his campaign notoriously imitated and mocked a physically disabled journalist.
"I feel bad for anyone with that much hate in their heart," she said. "Donald Trump doesn't hear me, he doesn't see me and he definitely doesn't speak for me."
But there were lighthearted moments as well, such as when Senator Al Franken, describing himself as a "world renowned expert on right-wing megalomaniacs," reverted to his comedic roots and essentially delivered a stand-up routine lambasting Trump University, whose most popular course was "Bankruptcy 101." Franken also exhorted the delegates to get out and do the hard work necessary to make sure that Hillary wins the election.
"Many of you have jobs. Many of you have families. Ignore them," he jokingly advised.
Franken later appeared with comedian Sarah Silverman to introduce singer Paul Simon, with the pair having to uncomfortably vamp for a lengthy spell because of a delay. Silverman took the opportunity to deliver an ad-lib destined to become one of the most quoted lines of the night.
"Can I just say to the 'Bernie or bust' people…you're being ridiculous," she chided, which only served to rile them up more.
Simon then came onstage to sing his classic "Bridge Over Troubled Water," which raised the inevitable question: How can the Democrats be expected to unite around their candidate if Simon and Garfunkel couldn't get together again for one night?