We heard a lot of quality speeches last week at the Democratic convention — speeches that are tapestries of rousing rhetoric stitched together into whole political cloth. Think of President Obama’s rich lecture on the meaning of democracy, or Vice President Biden’s folksy take down of Donald Trump, or Michael Bloomberg’s independent voice against what he called Trump’s dangerous demagoguery, or of course Hillary Clinton’s humble, determined, inspiring portrait of what drives her and what she wants to accomplish as president. All were on message, all expressed passion, all had some great turns of phrase. And there were plenty more like them over the week.
But there may be only one great speech delivered at this convention, and we heard it the very first night. Like every great speech, it was woven with a single unifying thread that bound it together, told a story, left us enchanted, and made us better for hearing it. What First Lady Michelle Obama gave us was a gift, a way to imagine America differently, a reaffirmation of the American Dream drawn from the experience of those who should have every right to be bitter about it. And she transformed politics from a blood sport about our wants and needs and anger today into a sacred promise we hold with our children to shape their lives and their futures.
In the pantheon of great conventions speeches — from Mario Cuomo’s 1984 tale of two cities to Barack Obama’s 2004 one America keynote — we must now add Michelle Obama’s 2016 appeal to our better angels.
From a speechwriting perspective, what she did was brilliant. She opened with a scene from her own family, how on Inauguration Day 2009 her kids “piled into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns,” how she saw “their little faces pressed up against the window,” and on what was arguably the greatest day of her own and her husband’s lives, she could only wonder, “What have we done?” Those years in the White House, she realized at that moment, “would form the foundation for who they would become.” It’s a story every parent — red or blue — could understand.
But the beauty of her rhetoric wasn’t in this particular story — it was how she made it a parable about politics, about its “power to shape our children,” about “kids who look to us to determine who and what they can be.” And if we think only of ourselves, if we inject our ego or fame into our political ambitions, then we are violating the compact inherent in politics and indeed in so much of life — that it should not be about ourselves, but the legacy we leave for our children.
And with that she offered an implied criticism of Donald Trump, an explicit plea for Hillary Clinton, and a powerful statement that politics must be more than the sum of our grievances. “When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level,” she said. “No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”
She then backed it up with a secondary but wholly connected theme, one about the American Dream, and she drew on the poignant but powerful journey of African Americans in the United States as central to who we are as a people. “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said, but it was expressed not in anger but in admiration and appreciation for Americans “who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done … ”
The genius of behind her words is the way she drew on injustice but didn’t dwell on grievance — instead turning it into a story of determination and perseverance among those who suffered, a true American Dream tale that illustrated how anger can consume but hope can liberate and redeem, making possible a better life for future generations so that the great-great-granddaughter of a slave could wake up in a White House built by slaves. In a subtle rebuke to Donald Trump, she essentially called on us to practice our politics in that spirit.
But as beautiful and uplifting and compelling a speech as this was, it’s still just a speech. The question is whether the message she laid out — that it’s about our children, not ourselves, that our American story should be grounded in perseverance, not resentment, that when crisis hits we don’t turn against each other, that we listen to and lean on each other — will be strong, sticky, and inspiring enough to counter the repetition, accusations, and rage that is at the core of the Republican political strategy this fall.
Adapted from an article originally published in Political Wire.
A former speechwriter and strategist for causes, candidates, and members of Congress, Leonard Steinhorn has written two books on American politics and culture and frequently writes for major print and online publications. He is currently a professor of communication at American University and a CBS News political analyst.
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