On the night when Kamala Harris made history — shattering multiple glass ceilings along the way — it was Barack Obama who made an urgent plea to save the democracy that had made Harris’ historic night possible.
Obama wasn’t subtle about the person who had succeeded him in office. He laid out the stakes for all to see.
“For close to four years now, he has shown no interest in putting in the work, no interest in finding common ground, no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends,” Obama said from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
When Obama left the job for Trump, he said, he hoped Trump could possibly grow into it, but noted “he hasn’t grown into the job, because he can’t.”
And so, Obama told us repeatedly, we have all paid the price.
It wasn’t just Obama who made this point. Harris made it, too. In a moving speech that must have brought tears to a million eyes, she brought together the two major story lines of our time, saying that racial injustice was like a “virus.”
“This virus,” Harris said, ‘It has no eyes, and yet it knows exactly how we see each other and how we treat each other. And let’s be clear: There is no vaccine for racism.”
In fact, it was nearly every speaker, many of them of women and young people, who spoke of this heavy price — a pandemic that didn’t have to cost 170,000 American lives to this point, an economy that didn’t have to be left in ruins, a nation, already so badly divided, that didn’t have to have a president who would turn political opponents into enemies.
Like the other nights in this convention, we missed the confetti, the balloons, but mostly the faces that I know I wished I’d seen when Harris movingly said how she wished her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, could have been there to hear her say, “I accept the nomination for Vice President of the United States of America.”
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The speech and the moment were historic, but the warning in Obama’s speech coupled perfectly with Harris’ speech. He warned of how this history could be lost. He said we must “embrace our responsibility as citizens, to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure, because that’s what is at stake — our democracy.”
I don’t know if this was Obama’s greatest speech, but it may go down as his most important.
He called out his successor in a way that, of course, infuriated Trump, who responded, as we’d expect, in semi-literate ALL-CAP tweets. But, more to the point, Obama called out Trump in a way that was meant to awaken any American not yet prepared to vote Trump out. I heard one TV pundit, can’t remember which, say this speech was Obama’s update on his now-long-ago call for the “fierce urgency of now.”
“What we do these next 76 days will echo through generations to come,” Obama said, noting the number of days left until the Nov. 3 election.
It was a night when Democrats pointedly appealed to young people, whose voices were heard on immigration, on gun violence, on domestic violence, on women’s rights, on human rights, on Black Lives Matter. And on this night, Obama appealed directly to those who “led us this summer, telling us we need to be better. In so many ways, you are this country’s dreams fulfilled. Earlier generations had to be persuaded that everyone has equal worth. For you, it’s a given – a conviction.”
In asking for everyone to turn out to vote, he noted, “That work will continue long after this election. But any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election. This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win.”
Those were the stakes that Obama set in a political speech that was remarkable in its tone and content. Presidents don’t talk about their successors this way. It’s the etiquette that comes with the job. But there has been no successor like Donald Trump, and Obama, who had been mostly reluctant to criticize Trump, finally went all in.
And why not? Earlier that day, Trump had been asked about QAnon and the crazy conspiracy involving Trump’s supposed war against a Satanic cult made up of Democratic pedophiles and cannibals. He was asked because he had praised several Republicans who embrace the theory. And in typical Trump fashion, he replied, “I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.”
This is where we are today. Trump is happy if lunatic conspiracy theorists like him. And this is where we are when Harris took the stage to accept her party’s nomination as the first Black woman and first South Asian woman to run on a major party ticket.
Her story, we were told, is the story of America. Her mother was an Indian immigrant who came to America at age 19 to go to Berkeley, hoping to be a doctor who would someday cure cancer. She would later die of the disease. Her father had come to America from Jamaica, also for school at Berkeley, to study economics. They married, and as Harris recalls it, her parents took her with them on civil rights marches.
“In the streets of Oakland and Berkeley, I got a stroller’s-eye view of people getting into what the great John Lewis called ‘good trouble,’ ” she would say.
As the first woman of color to reach her position, Harris made sure to note the history of the moment, which comes nearly 100 years to the day since the 19th Amendment was passed, giving women the right to vote. She named those women of color who had come before her — “Women,” she said, “like Mary Church Terrell and Mary McCleod Bethune. Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash. Constance Baker Motley and Shirley Chisholm. We’re not often taught their stories. But as Americans, we all stand on their shoulders.”
Harris also nodded, of course, to Hillary Clinton. It was women’s night at the convention. Clinton spoke and warned of not letting what happened in 2016 happen again. Nancy Pelosi spoke and told of the changes Democrats wanted to make but that were blocked each time, she said, “by Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.”
Elizabeth Warren, who had warred with Biden during the primary season but who has bonded with him since, said that Biden and Harris had “good plans” to reverse the past four years and improve on them. She spoke, as Jill Biden had, from an empty classroom, this time a preschool classroom — and, yes, those were the letters B-L-M on the bookshelf behind her — from which she told us of Biden’s plans to make child care available and affordable.
Harris got in her own good shot, presumably at Trump, saying “I know a predator when I see one.” We’ll hear much more like that over the next 76 days.
But if the night was about young people and women, if the night was especially about Kamala Harris and history, it was Obama’s speech, following up on Michelle Obama’s speech Monday, that brilliantly caught the moment and turned it into a call for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to remake a democracy — Obama warned in words that will ring beyond the convention — that Trump is willing to destroy.
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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