We knew it would be strange. It was opening night of a Democratic convention that couldn’t possibly be a normal convention. Not just for the lack of balloons and confetti, but for the lack of an audience, for the lack of spontaneity, for the lack of — as in all reality shows — actual reality. 

But if it was different and strange — come on, man, it was moderated by Eva Langoria — Michelle Obama made her entrance in the closing moments, and as she did, she would make an utterly convincing case that the strangeness of the setting somehow didn’t matter.

Instead of a convention, the Democrats did what they could. They put on a made-for-TV morality play, with the former First Lady playing the starring role, one that the critics were praising to the skies and one that no First Lady had, in modern times anyway, ever attempted. 

Mike Littwin

The night wasn’t about policy. It wasn’t about filibusters. It wasn’t about judges. Yes, there was much said about COVID-19, about the financial crisis, about racial injustice, about the post office and voter suppression, about wearing the damn mask. But the night’s theme was on the topic of decency and empathy, the very qualities that Obama and nearly every other speaker — Democrat, Republican, Democratic Socialist — assured us that Trump clearly lacks, that Biden clearly has in abundance, and that the nation sorely needs.

As Obama said of Trump and his lack of concern for others, “Right now, kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another. They’re looking around wondering if we’ve been lying to them this whole time about who we are and what we truly value.

“They see people shouting in grocery stores unwilling to wear a mask to keep us all safe. They see people calling the police on folks minding their own business, just because of the color of their skin. They see an entitlement that says only certain people belong here, that greed is good and winning is everything.”

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As Bernie Sanders put it of Trump and his handling of the coronavirus: “Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Trump golfs.”

For the first hour of the two-hour event, Democrats got away with a very slickly produced infomercial, featuring many “regular” Americans, and a few not-so-regular politicians, all of whom spoke in support of Joe Biden. There were many entertainers, especially Bruce Springsteen, and a few truly dramatic moments, especially the memorable testimony of “regular” person, Kristin Urquiza, whose dad, Mark Anthony Urquiza, had died of coronavirus. 

She said her father had faith in Donald Trump, that he had voted for Donald Trump, that he had believed Donald Trump. And when Arizona, where he lived, had reopened for business, he went to a karaoke bar, without a mask, without social distancing and contracted the virus. A few days later he died, separated from his family, a nurse holding his hand.

“My dad was a healthy 65-year old,” Urquiza said. ”His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump. And for that he paid with his life.”

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And there was George Floyd’s brother, Philonose Floyd, who led the viewers in a moment of silence for Floyd — with regular people Zoomed in, with eyes closed — and for the many others whose names he mentioned, whose names have become known to us, whose lost lives have turned Black Lives Matter into a national movement.

In the second half — when the networks came on — there were more politicians, including a few Republicans like John Kasich who criticized Trump and vouched for Biden. But the evening didn’t begin in earnest until it was nearly done. 

When Bernie Sanders took the virtual stage, he made the case for Biden in a way that he had never done for Hillary Clinton. He told progressives that this moment was too big, too critical, too important not to vote for Biden. It was, you could say, his look-we-may-have-missed-the-mark-in-2016-but-we-can’t-afford-to-do-it-this-time moment.

Saying Trump was “leading us down the path to authoritarianism,” he said that Trump’s lack of attention resulted “in over 170,000 deaths and a nation still unprepared to protect its people.”

And then, speaking to those “who supported other candidates in the primary and to those who may have voted for Donald Trump in the last election: The future of our democracy is at stake. The future of our economy is at stake. The future of our planet is at stake. My friends, the price of failure is just too great to imagine.”

It was a key moment. Kasich said Republicans should vote for Biden, a Democrat, he said, who wouldn’t turn far left. Sanders said progressives should vote for Biden, a moderate, he said, who had adopted many of the left’s ideas. 

But none of it matched Michelle Obama’s moment. The easy word to describe her speech is memorable, which is rare, if you consider most convention speeches. But it came from a person who has often said, as she did Monday, that she doesn’t like politics, she doesn’t like the down and dirty, doesn’t want to presume to tell people what to think.

And yet, she knew, as we knew, that many millions of people do trust her and would listen.

“Let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can: Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” she said. “He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us.

“It is what it is.”

That, of course, was what Trump had said in an interview with Axios about the number of Americans who had died from COVID-19. It is what it is. She didn’t stop there.

She said she knew how tough the job was and that Trump wasn’t up to the task. She begged people to vote, to get a ballot early and, if not, to pack a lunch and maybe a breakfast if it took standing in line all night.

In her 2016 convention speech, Obama had famously said “When they go low, we go high.” In 2020, she amended the speech to address the fact of Trump today. 

“But let’s be clear, going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty,” Obama said. “Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountaintop. Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation under God.”

If there had been a live audience, there would have been maybe a moment to digest what she had said, and then would have come wild applause that would have rocked the Milwaukee arena. But on this night, on this strangest of convention nights, rocking a national TV audience would have to do.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.

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