The aging face of Ted Kennedy and the fresh face of Michelle Obama set the tone for the first night of the Democratic National Convention. They had different roles befitting their different histories: Sen. Kennedy’s task was to help unite the party and Mrs. Obama’s was to make her husband more familiar to Americans who still do not know enough about him. Both rose to the occasion.
After days of myopic narcissism emanating from the Clinton family and their fans, Ted Kennedy reminded us all that there was a Democratic Party before Bill and Hill came to Washington. Kennedy joined the Senate in 1963 and no one has fought longer or harder for some of the most basic concerns of the Democratic Party. He voted for the Civil Rights bill of 1964 when Obama was four years old. He voted for Medicare in 1965 and earlier this year left his sick bed to save it. Kennedy led the effort to lower the voting age to eighteen and he opposed the rush to war in Iraq. When he endorsed Barack Obama last January, before he was diagnosed with brain cancer, you knew you were watching a torch being passed. Last night the torch-passing was explicit and, given Kennedy’s health, urgent.
Kennedy was introduced by his niece, Caroline Kennedy Schlossburg, who said that she had never been inspired by a politician the way people said her father inspired them, "until now." The daughter of the slain president was the one Kennedy who previously did not do politics, and Lord knows she had good reason to resent the price her family has paid for their political involvement. Climbing on board the Obama bandwagon this year, Caroline gives voice to many voters, especially young voters, who lacked her reasons but shared her alienation from the political process. Their excitement may prove decisive at the polls this November.
But, the night belonged to Michelle Obama. She is beautiful and elegant although one of the measures of how much has changed in our common understanding of gender roles is the difference between Mrs. Obama’s incarnation of beauty and elegance in 2008 and that of Jackie Kennedy in 1960: Jackie did not address the convention, nor did she go to Harvard Law School (although later in life she became a successful editor). And, of course, unlike the Jack and Jackie Kennedy, both of whom were fabulously rich, a key part of the Obama’s story is how both of them worked their way up from humble, middle class beginnings.
Michelle put the family back into familiar. She dwelled on her own father, and his struggle with Multiple Sclerosis. She talked about her relationship with her brother who at 6’6" looked over her literally and figuratively. Apart from the podium, you would have thought she was introducing herself to a neighborhood Mom’s organization. And, she linked her and her husband’s story to their political ambitions: her was a woman who wanted him at home with their girls but, for the future of those girls, wants her husband out winning the election.
The closing image of Michelle Obama joined on stage by her two, over-the-top-adorable little girls is the picture the campaign wants on the front page this morning. Many white, ethnic (and Catholic) Americans feel threatened by Obama’s race. There is nothing threatening about adorable little girls. But, here is the difficulty for the campaign’s effort to familiarize Obama. Most Americans can relate to little girls, but they can’t relate to being on the stage of a sports complex that has been re-decorated to look like a Disney set. Given the recent attacks by the McCain campaign, the setting suggests the celebrity culture that undercuts the connection the Obama campaign seeks.
McCain is barking up the wrong tree, however. For starters, Americans are quite accustomed to black celebrities. The white ethnic Catholics in suburban Detroit who voted for Hillary and are skeptical of Obama, they cheer on Curtis Granderson when they watch the Tigers and they listen to Oprah when she recommends a book and they enjoyed going to see "Hancock" this summer. Casting the Obamas as celebrities will not harm them in the long run. If you doubt it, ask the Kennedys.
Michael Sean Winters