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Democratic Convention Sets Historic Precedent for Party, Nation

August 25, 2008 at 10:50 PM EDT
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Democrats capped the first night of their 2008 party convention with a speech by Sen. Barack Obama's wife Michelle. Guests analyze how the night went for the party and for the Obamas.

JIM LEHRER: And that ends, with the exception of the benediction still to come, that ends this first night of the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

We want to get some closing thoughts first from Mark Shields and David Brooks, who are still with us. And there are also still with us convention historian team of Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, and Peniel Joseph. Also down on the floor is Judy Woodruff.

Mark, first, you go first.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Jim, it was a fascinating night, in the sense that, if one thinks of America as a WASP-dominated country — white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant — which, of course, has been 42 of our 43 presidents have been that, have been male and pale, in the phrase of Jim Leach tonight, I mean, this really was fascinating in the sense of — from the Italian-American speaker of the House, first woman, to Jesse Jackson, Jr., to Barack Obama’s sister, to his wife, to Ted Kennedy, to his children, his brother-in-law.

I mean, all of whom spoke well, each really an amazing tribute to what America is open to, what we produce, what — this country is welcoming, the opportunities it affords, and the opportunities that people have taken, I mean, in that sense.

Politically, I’m not sure what it’s — you know, I think David put his finger on it. People don’t know Barack Obama that well. They’ve got a different feeling about him, I think, after tonight.

This was a test run for Michelle Obama. She has become a controversial figure during the primary season as to whether she will be used as a political factor and force in the fall. I mean, they’re obviously a very close couple.

I think she did well tonight. But, of course, the judgment will be made.

But I thought, in that sense of giving a sense of who he is and who, in fact, this man is that has achieved this remarkable accomplishment — I mean, in 19 months, going from a fellow we heard speak four years ago in Boston, and we were blown away by his gifts, but, I mean, to conquer the most formidable machine in the modern history of the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton together, and to win that Democratic nomination as an African-American, you know, we still are learning who he is.

JIM LEHRER: David, what would you add to that?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, I would say, first, the Democrats had a good night. They had a good night because the spirit was good.

I thought it was a continuation of the spirit of that speech that Obama gave four years ago, emphasizing one America, unity, how much we have together, not attacking, not divisive, but really hopeful and uplifting. So I thought the Democrats had a good night.

There were some steps made toward defining who Obama was, giving the American people a sense of who he was. Michelle Obama gave a fine speech in many ways with many good touches, but I think it will be looked upon as a bit of a missed opportunity, because America has a sense of Obama as the messiah, as the great leader. They do not have a sense of the man in his everyday life.

And I thought Michelle Obama was uniquely positioned to give America a sense of who he was normally, just day to day. And I don’t think she really tried to do that; I don’t think she really did that.

I would have liked to have seen a little more of that, less messiah, a little more, “Here’s the guy.” And I think she missed that chance, but, nonetheless, it was a good night for the Democrats.

MARK SHIELDS: I think one of the reasons she didn’t do that is because she’s been criticized for — he doesn’t pick up his dirty socks…

JIM LEHRER: Stuff like that, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: … that it had become too familiar. But I think it’s a legitimate point David makes, but that’s sort of a bookend, that criticism.

Michelle Obama's speech

Peniel Joseph
Brandeis University
I thought Michelle's speech was extraordinary. I think, as a historian, the person who I thought of was Rosa Parks.

JIM LEHRER: Peniel Joseph, what did you think? Back -- start with Michelle Obama's speech and then work back to the entire evening.

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Well, I thought Michelle's speech was extraordinary. I think, as a historian, the person who I thought of was Rosa Parks. And I thought of Rosa Parks in December of 1965 refusing to give up that seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and how in a lot of ways she's considered the god mother of the civil rights movement.

And I also thought of Fanny Lou Hamer, from Ruleville, Mississippi, who as a civil rights activist was actually barred from the Atlantic City convention in 1964.

And, finally, I thought of Shirley Chisholm, who in 1972 tried to run for president. And many people said, why is this black woman running for president? And we have Michelle Obama on the cusp of being the first lady of the United States of America.

In terms of the whole night, I think the whole notion of strength through diversity has been the theme of the Obama campaign. And tonight the Democrats tried to stress that, and I think they succeeded in large part.

JIM LEHRER: Richard, what's your view?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: You know, I would disagree with David in some degree. I mean, first of all, you know, this whole subspecies, this genre of convention oratory, the spousal speech has a somewhat checkered history. I mean, we've seen it done very well, and we've also seen it done, quite frankly, not so well.

And I thought it was done very well this evening, if, as we've said all evening long, the real purpose of this convention is to fill in a lot of blanks and to show to millions of people, include many who are inclined to vote Democratic this fall, that if Barack Obama is not necessarily one of us, he is a lot more like us than perhaps we thought before this week.

And, finally -- and most important of all -- I think those two adorable little girls were the biggest vote-getters of the night. And they're probably good for a couple million votes right there.


Michael, your view?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Yes, apologies to David. Michelle and those girls were worth, I would say, four million votes and probably not wrong either, because, you know, that speech wasn't important in terms of reading it line-by-line. What was important was in conveying what kind of a human being Barack Obama is.

This is a real family. She loves her husband. He loves her. These daughters are these elegant, delightful, loving kids. You can't fake that kind of stuff.

And one reason that you have an event like this is that, for Americans who do not know a candidate like Barack Obama, this is a way of getting a sense of who he is. And I think that conveyed it in one second.

The other thing I would say is I think it's a good idea for us to pause, as Mark Shields was saying, to remember this is someone who came to the brink of this nomination against almost all the odds.

Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton had control of the Democratic Party for years. Terry McAuliffe was chairman for four years, a lot of advantages with fundraisers. It's one reason why, at the beginning of this year, so many people thought that Hillary was inevitable.

Whether you're for Barack Obama or not, you have to say that this is something that affirms the great hope of the founders that we'd never be in a situation that someone could come in without those advantages and still make it to the top.


All right now, let's go to Judy. Judy? Judy Woodruff?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim, yes. Hi.

Floor response

Judy Woodruff
NewsHour Correspondent
I would say -- and journalists write the first rough draft of history -- that this one, at this stage, seems to be a successful one.

JIM LEHRER: I'm going to ask you the impossible question. How did Michelle Obama's speech go down on the floor among the folks?

JUDY WOODRUFF: You know, Jim, I was watching the audience -- the delegates, and I also turned around from time to time to watch the press corps, because, you know, this is a pretty cynical -- sorry, skeptical group, and sometimes even cynical, and I have to say, they -- this was an intent, even rapt audience.

You had the sense -- and I talked to some delegates about this ahead of time -- there was some risk in this speech. Michelle Obama has been a somewhat controversial figure. And you could almost feel before she came out they were holding their breath.

You know, there was some humor, her brother, with certainly the little video by her mother, I think, caught people's attention. There was some humor from her brother. But this was -- her speech had everybody stopping what they were doing.

There was no conversation. They were watching. They were listening. They were with her when she brought her daughters up, their daughters up.

So I would say, you know, this was -- I've seen -- I heard one of the historians say, you know, there have been spousal speeches, they've been successful on a scale of 1 to 10. I would say -- and journalists write the first rough draft of history -- that this one, at this stage, seems to be a successful one.

JIM LEHRER: Judy, one last question, because we're going to tomorrow for -- it's Hillary Clinton night at this convention. Had you been able in your walking around and speaking to delegates and whatever, have you been able to discern a strong difference between those delegates seated who are big Hillary people and those who are big Obama people, et cetera?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it's interesting, Jim. I have asked everybody we've talked to who -- where there was a former Hillary delegate or a current Hillary delegate.

And most of them -- it's interesting -- have gone out of their way to say, "You know, this is being overblown. Yes, we have some Clinton delegates in our delegation, but we think this is going to be all right."

Yes, there are a few who are holdouts. I've talked to a couple who said, "You know, I'm not sure I'm so comfortable." But, you know, we'll have to see. We may be making more of this than there is or we may find out that it's very, very real.

You're right, Senator Clinton tomorrow night -- she's not the keynote speaker. We're going to hear from former Governor Mark Warner of Virginia, who's the Senate candidate there. They've named him to be the keynote speaker, but she will follow him.

She is the highlight tomorrow night. And we are going to -- I think we'll know a lot more tomorrow night about how much this convention is ready to come together.

Weight of appearances

David Brooks
The New York Times
It would be hard to not get caught up in the spirit of, first, the Ted Kennedy appearance, the video of Michelle Obama's family, the daughters.

JIM LEHRER: And, David, do you think that the Obama -- particularly the last hour, so emotionally, so Obama-ish, kind of is intimidating to any Hillary Clinton people, including Hillary Clinton herself, who want to come in and walk on that?

DAVID BROOKS: It would be hard to not get caught up in the spirit of, first, the Ted Kennedy appearance, the video of Michelle Obama's family, the daughters. It would be hard to -- it would take a heart of stone to resist not being caught in some of those, if you're in the hall.

That's not to say she's going to win -- or he or Michelle or Barack are going to win over all the people in the country. But if you're in the hall, I have trouble sitting -- anybody sitting there and having a heart of stone about this. You're going to be swept up.

Hillary Clinton's mission

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
Hillary Clinton's mission is to thank her supporters, obviously, and to do her very best to unite this party.

JIM LEHRER: Does it make a -- what is Hillary Clinton's mission then tomorrow night, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Hillary Clinton's mission is to thank her supporters, obviously, and to do her very best to unite this party. Some Clinton people -- I don't include Senator Clinton in this group -- but some people in the Clinton camp think that, if Barack Obama goes down in November, that Hillary Clinton is the inevitable nominee in 2012.

If there's any suggestion or any fingerprints that the Clintons, in particular Senator Clinton, have not gone all-out in his behalf, I think you could be almost guaranteed that the African-American vote en bloc, en masse in the country would say -- would feel betrayed.

So I think they're playing with political dynamite. I think she knows -- I think she's committed to electing him. And I think she will make that speech and move her supporters.

JIM LEHRER: And we'll get a lot of clues tomorrow night as to where all of this is going.

OK, thank you, Mark and David, and to all.

And that does end our coverage of this first night of the Democratic National Convention here in Denver. We'll be back tomorrow night, first at our NewsHour time, and then again here on most PBS stations at 8 p.m. Eastern time, with our coverage of evening two of the convention itself.

We'll see you then and online, with even more of our complete convention coverage, including a mid-day video news update and a forum with two Latino bloggers.

For now, I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you, and good night.