PHILADELPHIA — Monday was Bernie Sanders’s night at the Democratic National Convention. As usual, he and his supporters brought all the nuance and subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head. The speech that the country needed to hear was not his. It was Michelle Obama’s.
In an address not much longer than 10 minutes, the first lady brought a sense of context and history to the race - and, indeed, the state of the country - that, in its telling, demanded that the nation raise its gaze from the ugliness into which its politics have descended. She appealed to Americans’ better natures.
Obama premised her speech on a simple theme: dignity. Rather than repeat all the labels Democrats will, with good reason, hurl at Donald Trump this week — bigot, demagogue, threat to the Republic — she simply insisted that Americans should demand better.
National leaders bear a special responsibility to behave with care, she argued. “Our words and actions matter not just to our girls, but to children across this country,” she said. “Kids like the little black boy who looked up at my husband, his eyes wide open, he wondered, ‘Is my hair like yours?’” The stakes in this election higher than “Democrat or Republican” and “black or white,” she said. The country faces a moral choice, now more than ever. Voters who are considering Trump because they want to send a message to Washington, she implied, must consider the cost of sending a national embarrassment to the Oval Office.
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Obama’s speech was not just about Trump. It was about how an advanced society relates to its history and confronts adversity. In the most moving line of the night, Obama addressed rising racial anxieties, speaking of “the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight. The story of people who felt the last of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done, so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”
Progress may seem slow, but it has happened, and it can continue to happen if Americans are willing to apply patience and hard work in good faith. “Don’t let anyone tell you that the country isn’t great,” she said. “We cannot afford to be tired or frustrated or cynical.”
Throughout, Obama offered a positive case for her candidate that contrasted sharply with the “vote for Trump or else” tone of last week’s GOP convention. “Hillary has spent years doing the thankless, relentless work to actually make a difference in their lives,” she said, in a line stressing Clinton’s competence, praising her results-oriented pragmatism and offering an implied critique of the unrealistic ideological fuming Sanders calls an agenda. Then, after reminding Americans of the historic nature of her husband’s election, she drew attention to the history the country has yet to make. “Because of Hillary Clinton my daughters can now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States,” she said.
Donald Trump’s nomination presents the country with a uniquely stark decision: dignity or degradation. Michelle Obama showed how much better dignity looks Monday night.