Democrats have become accustomed to having the best speech at their quadrennial convention given by someone named Obama. This year, that person might also be named Michelle.
Hers was not the keynote, nor the most anticipated, nor the longest speech of the night. But it mesmerized and subdued the raucous and rebellious crowd, focusing the enormous energy of Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Arena just where convention organizers had hoped — on Hillary Clinton.
The current first lady’s highly personal remarks included a moving reflection on raising two African-American daughters in a White House “built by slaves.” Her voice broke with emotion when she added that these two children of the first black president could now see the prospect of the first female president.
For the record, her time on stage proved to be the least-interrupted interval in a night of remarkable rudeness toward speakers on the podium and toward the name of Hillary Clinton.
Convention officials, congressional leaders and even the icons of the party’s progressive wing — keynoter Elizabeth Warren and candidate Bernie Sanders — were subjected to jeers, catcalls and chants from an element of the audience.
Most of the disruptive shouting came from rows of Sanders supporters in the delegations from California and a handful of other states. But noisy participants in the protests were scattered widely through the delegations. Signs that said “Bernie” or “No TPP” were waving in the crowd all night (the latter a reference to opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal).
And while it was clear that most of Sanders’ roughly 1,900 delegates were not taking part in such behavior, a substantial and vocal fraction managed to distract from the proceedings throughout the evening — chanting “We trusted you” or “Goldman Sachs” in addition to the standard cries of “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie.”
It began early, when the opening invocation included a mention of Clinton. Suddenly the rafters rang with boos from portions of the crowd. For some minutes thereafter, booing followed every mention of the presumptive nominee.
Especially targeted for derision in the early going was Rep. Marcia Fudge of Cleveland, Ohio. She had been named chair of the convention in place of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman who, as chair of the Democratic National Committee, was expected to gavel the confab to order.
Wasserman Schultz, embattled almost from the beginning of her tenure in 2011, finally resigned on Sunday after Wikileaks posted more than 19,000 emails from her office and staff. The emails showed a strong tilt toward Clinton and caustic antipathy toward Sanders, who had entered the party’s presidential competition this year despite his long history as an independent socialist.
There were times on Monday night when the convention seemed to be coming together. One such was the collaboration of Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and comedian Sarah Silverman, both former Saturday Night Live cast members. They entertained while musicians got set up to accompany Paul Simon in a rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Franken and Silverman offered a bridge of their own, with Silverman saying she had been an ardent Sanders supporter all year but it was time to move on. “And to you ‘Bernie or Bust’ people,” Silverman added, “you are being ridiculous.”
Cory Booker, the first-term senator from New Jersey who was once mayor of Newark, roused the crowd with a high-intensity sermon about justice, equality and community commitment. He involved the entire arena in his call-and-response version of Maya Angelou’s poetry. His emphasis was on “rising together.”
But the tone of the evening was often off-key because of the constant low- to high-level buzz in opposition to a Clinton “coronation.” It was as though many Sanders supporters had arrived thinking the nomination was still unsettled, a matter that could be altered during the roll call on Tuesday night. Even as the reality of the scoreboard sank in, they continued to imagine other scenarios whereby Sanders would be the nominee.
All this added portent because of the release of the emails, which had precisely the effect intended by WikiLeaks. The self-styled, anti-secrecy Internet activist had made clear it wanted to derail progress toward November.
The group had timed the dump for the days before the convention, and many Sanders backers hoped they might reverse their man’s decision to concede the nomination and endorse Clinton. Their reactions suggested that anyone now backing Clinton had lost all claim to legitimacy, or at least to the loyalty of the hardcore Sanders entourage.
They begged him to do so throughout the evening, even as he gave the closing speech and exhorted his troops to rally to a new standard. They also dissed Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who until now has been a progressive favorite.
Warren took the stage to a wildly enthusiastic response and delivered her usual high-energy assault on all things Trump, whom she deemed “a man who has never sacrificed anything for anyone but himself.” But her jeremiad did not have the same bite it had on the campaign stump with Clinton earlier this month.
Disappointed in Warren, some of Sanders’ forces were also displeased with the Sanders speech that closed the program: “Any objective observer will conclude that — based on her ideas and her leadership — Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States. The choice is not even close.”
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told NBC he would not reveal the source that provided the hacked emails. When told that three cybersecurity firms had confirmed that Russian state actors had left markers of their hacking, Assange said that allegation could not be proven. He did not, however, deny the Russians had been his source.
The issue of Russian involvement was not a matter of idle speculation. Students of the subject, including Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, say the Russians have not been shy about politicking beyond their borders.
“Their support for fringe political parties and individual politicians within European countries has been well documented, from backing the far right French National Front and Bulgarian Ataka parties, to creating sham news agencies and sponsoring ‘troll farms’ of social media commenters to whip up anti-government public sentiment within Western societies.”
Officials of the Clinton campaign did not hesitate to pin the WikiLeaks cache on the Russians, saying the government of Vladimir Putin was putting a thumb on the scales on behalf of Donald Trump — who has had extensive dealings with Russians.
Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, dismissed the Russian connection as “pure obfuscation” and a sign of desperation on the part of Democrats. Manafort has worked as a political consultant for various foreign governments, including the Russia-friendly regime of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was deposed by a nationalist uprising against him in 2014.
Next up: Will there be an uprising against Bill Clinton, the former president, when he takes to the dais Tuesday night for yet another defining moment in a long career?