Teddy Kennedy was an impossible act to follow. His appearance the first evening of the Democratic National Convention was meticulously managed—far in advance of the convention, it was suggested he might appear, but the morning of his "tribute," another rumor circulated that he wasn't feeling up to it. Throughout Caroline Kennedy's low-energy introduction, yellow-vested officials had been spreading blue Kennedy signs throughout the state delegations—but even so, people seemed shocked when Senator Kennedy finally stepped onstage. He spoke perhaps a little more slowly than you remembered, but otherwise he looked robust, energetic, and fearless, dropping a prime-time shout-out to gays and lesbians amid the calls for universal health care and an end to worthless wars. As political theater goes, this was flawless, toe-curling suspense.
Had Kennedy upstaged Michelle Obama, the scheduled headliner for the night?
Not a chance. Obama smashed it up—people were laughing sympathetically, they were crying silently, they were hanging on her every word. The speech had barely a scrap of policy and not a word about big bad John McCain. (Some analysts have complained that Monday was light on attack politics, but please—the last thing middle America wants to see is an angry black prospective first lady.) This was a speech meant to soften her image and to bring the celebrated Barack Obama down to an ordinary, relatable size. On the floor, it went over like gangbusters.
Framed by a very clever introduction by her older brother, head basketball coach at OSU, Michelle Obama opened with a dud of a joke: "As you might imagine, for Barack, running for president is nothing compared to that first game of basketball with my brother, Craig." But she recovered quickly with a moving evocation of her childhood on Chicago's South Side, describing how her father, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, continued to work. She had some trouble with the teleprompter, which made her look human, and at points struggled to hold back tears, which made you want to give her a hug.
The most important moment in her speech: She proclaimed her love for her country, earning fierce cries of support from the floor, and she quoted Hillary Clinton's proud concession speech, saying that she "put those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, so that our daughters—and sons—can dream a little bigger and aim a little higher."
Appealing to disaffected Clinton voters and delegates is a top priority. And to judge from the emotional Washington State subcaucus for Clinton delegates that I attended Monday morning, it'll take work. Michelle Obama is doing her part—and people here seem to appreciate it. At an LGBT delegate reception Tuesday afternoon, where she made a completely unexpected appearance, Obama's praise of her husband's former foe earned her several standing ovations from the audience. Gay and lesbian delegates are more likely to be Clinton supporters, but they seemed won over.