Editorial: Obama makes historic mark

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 28, 2008

The knock on modern political conventions is that they’re long on choreographed glitz and short on any real substance or drama. In other words, they’re a lot like other other television fare.
It’s true that we’ll probably never again see the likes of the 1912 Democratic Convention, when it took 46 ballots to nominate Woodrow Wilson. Those who work the levers of political power aren’t likely to allow things to be as free-wheeling as they were back in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination following, as one historian described it, “midnight conferences of liquor-stimulated politicians, deals for jobs, local leaders pulling wires to save their state tickets, petty malice, and personal jealousies …” Those were the days when conventions held real suspense ó along with real smoke ó and the outcome might totter in doubt for days.
Still, on a few rare occasions, modern viewers actually get to see history in the making, as they did Thursday night when Sen. Barack Obama gave his official acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention at Denver’s Invesco Field, thus becoming the first African-American to be nominated for president by a major party. Fittingly, it occurred on the 45th anniversary, to the day, of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, delivered in 1963 during the March on Washington. However fervently those marchers in Washington may have seized on King’s ringing declarations, few dared hope that during their own lives they would gather for another speech by another black man who might well be elected president.
It will be up to history ó and the nation’s voters ó to determine how well Obama’s speech succeeded. He set himself an ambitious task with what was billed as a “direct conversation” with the American people. While his rhetorical gifts were firmly established with his 2004 convention address, he needed to do more than move the throng in Denver ó or the millions watching in homes across the nation. He needed to connect with voters who still don’t feel they know enough about him or where he wants to lead the country. He needed to flesh out the lanky bones of biography and provide a concrete foundation for the soaring words of hope. At the same time, following the groundwork laid in earlier speeches by former President Clinton and his running mate, Joe Biden, he needed to draw bold distinctions between his vision for the future and that of the Republican nominee, John McCain.
Whether you liked his speech or found it utterly persuasive, whether you’re a yellow-dog Democrat or a diehard Republican, only the most cynical and hard-souled could deny the significance of Thursday night’s address. “This is a monumental moment in our nation’s history,” said Martin Luther King III, the civil rights leader’s son.
That will remain true regardless of what happens come November. Obama’s nomination may have been a foregone conclusion, but it was nonetheless a dramatic turning point in history, a vivid marker separating one epoch from another. Amid the stagecraft and orchestration, it provided an unconventional moment to bring down the curtain on the Democratic Convention.