Obama, Harris, and an Unconventional Convention


L. Mencken, a columnist who gloried in the sweaty pageantry and funny-hat hokum of early-twentieth-century nominating Conventions, would surely have savaged the two-dimensional Presidential campaign of our pandemic summer. Mencken lampooned the quadrennial bacchanals of his day, but he clearly relished their madness. Writing of the 1924 Democratic National Convention, a sixteen-day affair at Madison Square Garden, Mencken wrote, “There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging.”

That Convention, which required a hundred and three ballots to settle on the doomed candidacy of John W. Davis, a corporate lawyer from West Virginia, featured the influence of the Ku Klux Klan (as did the same summer’s Republican Convention) and Franklin Roosevelt’s eloquent, yet futile, attempt to promote the Presidential bid of New York Governor Al Smith, “the Happy Warrior.” This was an event without television schedules or air-conditioning. Imagine the tedium, the hovering clouds of cigar smoke and B.O. And yet there was Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, pounding his typewriter with happy derision.

“It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it is hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus, and yet it is somehow charming,” he wrote. “One sits through long sessions wishing all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell—and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour.”

In the absence of such lurid attractions, how would the candidacy of Joe Biden survive the impatience of the voters, much less the pitiless gaze of a Mencken? In a campaign without travel and a Convention without crowds, how could a masked and socially distanced candidate, whose most pronounced quality is an outsized capacity for empathy, find a way to connect? And with so much on the line—the survival of democratic norms and the rule of law, the national health and the future of the natural world—how could Biden and the Party leadership conceive a nominating Convention that would not fall as flat as the screens on which it would be projected?

So far, the Democrats have largely succeeded in creating a new and effective form of Convention, not so much with balloon showers but with nightly critiques of a calamitous and ugly Presidency and a series of emotional appeals to the country’s better angels. This Convention is a decidedly earnest spectacle—Mencken would have been quick to identify its flavor as treacle—but, over all, this event just may end up playing a critical role for the Democrats in an election that is far from decided.

On Wednesday night, it was Barack Obama and Kamala Harris’s turn to prosecute the case against Trump. And Obama, in particular, was at his best. It was as if he had been waiting for this moment with a barely concealed relish. After Trump’s victory, in 2016, Obama met with Trump once at the White House and found him unschooled and uninterested in the particulars of the office he was about to assume. Obama concealed his true alarm behind the mists of custom and euphemism. He consoled his staff, telling them that Trump’s victory was “not the apocalypse.” And yet he has watched with a cool fury as Trump has done everything possible to dismantle his legacy—including the Iran nuclear deal, countless financial and environmental regulations, and the Paris accords on climate change.

In his Convention speech, Obama dispensed with predecessor-successor courtesies. Like Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders on Monday night, he made his case in plain terms, at once idealistic and brutal. First, he framed his argument in the lofty terms of the Constitution and the general expectations of a President. Then he got down to cases.

“I have sat in the Oval Office with both of the men who are running for President,” Obama said. “I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies. I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously—that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care. But he never did. For close to four years now, he’s 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; no interest in treating the Presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.”

Obama did not hesitate to get personal. “Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job, because he can’t,” he said. “And the consequences of that failure are severe. A hundred and seventy thousand Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone. While those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.” Then he extolled the virtues of Biden, a “brother,” a partner in the creation of the Affordable Care Act and the rescue of the economy after the Great Recession.

(And, while Obama spoke, invoking the heroes of the civil-rights movement, praising young people on the streets for “telling us we need to be better,” and calling for voters to “give our democracy new meaning,” Trump was in the White House watching the proceedings and tweeting apoplectically: “HE SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN, AND GOT CAUGHT!”)

“This Administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that is what it takes to win,” Obama went on. “So we have to get busy building it up, by pouring all our effort into these seventy-six days, and by voting like never before, for Joe and Kamala, and candidates up and down the ticket, so that we can leave no doubt about what this country we love stands for, today and for all our days to come.”

Kamala Harris finished the evening. Speaking in a vast blue hall, she started out by paying tribute to predecessors, from Fannie Lou Hamer to Shirley Chisholm and to her parents, immigrants from India and Jamaica who met during the civil-rights struggle. Her nomination as Biden’s running mate represents a continuity with the Obama years, and not only in ethnic terms. When I interviewed Obama after his miserable Oval Office meeting with Trump, I asked him who the Democratic Party now had on the bench. One of the first, and few, names he mentioned was hers. In her speech, Harris assailed Trump’s incompetence and “callousness,” and called for unity under Biden’s banner. “Right now, we have a President who turns our tragedies into political weapons,” Harris said. “Joe will be a President who turns our challenges into purpose.” Her speech was not the best of the night, but it more than suggested a good campaigner and a difficult debate night for Mike Pence.

The set-piece speeches of this Convention have largely been effective. Sanders, who came in second in 2020, as he did in 2016, was at once generous to Biden but true to his insistence on foundational change. (There were disappointments: Al Gore on climate change would have been more relevant and welcome than Bill Clinton’s discourse on Oval Office comportment.) Many of the produced-for-TV-and-social-media video segments have also hit the mark, including Tuesday’s roll call, with its visions of palm trees, mountain ranges, and fried calamari; the heart-tugging nomination of Biden by a Times security guard; the heroic story of Ady Barkan, a thirty-six-year-old lawyer who suffers from A.L.S. and became nationally recognized for his campaigning for Medicare for All. Those pieces and others largely felt genuine and stood in contrast to the distinctly sour and vindictive opponent they sought to upend.

Customarily, the leader of the opposing party keeps a low profile during these sessions. Trump cannot help himself, tweeting insults at the screen with a febrile desperation. At a modest rally in Yuma, Arizona, on Tuesday, he went on about his foul campaign against immigration. And on Wednesday, his spokesperson, Kayleigh McEnany, made it plain that he might well challenge the results of the election: “The President has always said he’ll see what happens and make a determination in the aftermath.” Meanwhile, to little notice this week, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee issued a comprehensive report stating that Trump’s associates, including his campaign chairman Paul Manafort, did, in fact, have direct links with Russians intent on interfering in the 2016 election. In response to the Senate report, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement, saying, “America’s intelligence and law enforcement communities have made clear that the Russian Government is continuing to wage a massive intervention campaign to benefit the President, warning of a ‘365-days-a-year threat’ to compromise the 2020 elections and undermine our democracy.”

The insistent sincerity of this week’s Convention would have been lost on Mencken. For all of his qualities as a satirist and as a master of a baroque American English, he was also a cynic and a bigot. His diary was flecked with the acid spittle of racism and anti-Semitism. As late as 1945, he described the American role in the Second World War as “dishonest, dishonorable, and ignominious.” What such a sensibility would have made of the demographics of the modern Democratic Party and the Party’s determined intent to celebrate that diversity is not hard to imagine.

Mencken persists for his wit, not his judgment. But he did get one thing right. He anticipated the rise of a confidence man like Trump, the possibility that one day “the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” On Thursday, the closing night of this unconventional Convention, Joe Biden will make the case for ushering that downright moron out of the White House.

David Remnick