The Convention’s First Night Was Filled With Sorrow — as It Should Be

Technologically flawless, light on policy but with lots of lumber to lump up Donald Trump, the first night of the Democratic National “Convention” was what it needed to be: a well-crafted TV show that (mostly) kept your attention from start to finish.

Here in the valley of the shadow of death, the national mood is somber and grim. The first night of any convention is meant to set the tone for the week. Last night’s tone was also somber and grim, but with enough hope to warm some of the places in the heart that have gone cold and dark since March.

Absent the spectacle of raucous delegates swarming in a forest of state-labeled rectangles as they cheer speakers who ham up the applause lines, the producers were tasked to conjure something new in the world. What they came up with — a montage-style procession of speakers, testimonials and music buttressed by a walloping finish — got the job done better than most people probably expected. It hit you in the eye to begin, and held you by the collar at the end.

Unlike most conventions, the evening included a direct focus on racial justice, although some of its ways of addressing it (such as featuring Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has ushered in an unprecedented spate of police brutality against protesters) were not well-received by activists.

However, a number of moments struck a profound chord. The portion when George Floyd’s family held a moment of silence was bookended at the conclusion by former First Lady Michelle Obama saying the word: murdered. “And here at home, as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and a never-ending list of innocent people of color continue to be murdered,” she said, “stating the simple fact that a Black life matters is still met with derision from the nation’s highest office.”

Floyd, Taylor and all the others whose names have been shouted in the streets during the uprisings did not simply “die.” They were murdered by police, and Michelle Obama said it right into the damn camera. It was an incredibly important statement from so prominent a person on so prominent a night, for if you cannot name it, you will never be able to defeat it.

Michelle Obama’s stratospheric performance last night was one of three that defined the evening. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, looking fit and feisty in front of a wall of freshly cut firewood (winter starts next week in Vermont, y’know), made the policy case for a Biden presidency with as much sincerity as he could summon while taking a well-deserved victory lap.

Our campaign ended several months ago,” said Sanders, “but our movement continues and is getting stronger every day. Many of the ideas we fought for, that just a few years ago were considered ‘radical,’ are now mainstream.”

Sanders went on to tout Joe Biden’s proposed policies on raising the minimum wage, strengthening unions and early child care, addressing climate change, expanding health care coverage (“while Joe and I disagree on the best path to get to universal coverage…”), ending private prisons, and finally, ending the chair-throwing daytime talk show the presidency has become under Donald Trump. If anyone is expecting Bernie Sanders to fade away after two failed presidential bids, they should prepare to be disappointed.

Savvy observers knew Sanders and Obama would bring their A-game to the convention opener. The unexpected thunder came from Kristin Urquiza, who came to the attention of social media and then the national media recently after penning an obituary for her father, who died of COVID-19 in Arizona. That obituary, which blamed Trump and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey for her father’s death, went viral and landed Urquiza a crystal-perfect moment to put the bricks to a man she believes took her father from her.

“My dad was a healthy 65-year-old,” said Urquiza. “His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life.” Had she said that in a packed convention hall, you probably could have heard a pin drop. Urquiza was every person who has lost someone to COVID under Trump’s garbage administration. She was the avatar of their pain and the voice of their wrath.

Of course there were bad bits to the evening’s festivities, because establishment Democrats are driving the convention bus, and establishment Democrats still believe that if they act more like Republicans, Republicans will stop being mean to them. It is the long tragedy of the age.

Last night’s parade of pro-Biden Republican speakers — John Kasich, Meg Whitman, Susan Molinari and Christine Todd Whitman — was every bit as maddening as it was superfluous. I don’t need to hear from four Republicans who stood by and let Trump happen to their party and then the world tell me how bad things are right now. The monster got out of their goddamn lab, and people like them want to paper over the hole in the wall. Maybe nobody will notice where he came from?

Maybe not. Kasich standing at the white-gravel crossroads as he spoke was every inch the shallow, sophomoric symbolism of the modern conservative who is trying to wash off the blood. Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce summed up that segment of the night best: “The idea that somewhere out there is a citizen who needs John Kasich’s ‘permission’ to vote against a guy advising us to drink bleach and eat poison to fight a global pandemic makes me sad to be an American.”

Expecting heft and depth from a modern political convention is to expect Shakespeare from a fern. That is not what these things are for anymore. They have been TV shows and nothing more for decades now, but live ones shot in crowded rooms with peacock politicians strutting their colors under the lights.

There were no peacocks last night, but there was a surfeit of sorrow and a sense of resolve that was unmistakable. There were great performances by strong speakers which can and will be spliced into online and TV ads from now until November. It was two hours and three minutes of scripted, often pre-recorded moments meant to capture the severity of the times while instilling hope for a brighter future. It certainly accomplished the former, and the rest remains to be seen.