God, Country and Hillary

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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In their final night in Philadelphia, the Democrats stole a motto from Notre Dame and altered the ending: Last night was about God, Country & Hillary. And, in what was billed as the most important speech of her life, Clinton demonstrated what people had been saying about her all week: She is a work horse not a show horse. No one envies having to follow President Obama, but still the speech was astonishingly mediocre and she should be searching for better speech writers immediately.

After a hilarious riff by former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, in which she rewrote great lines in American history to fit Donald Trump's "I alone" approach to government -- "I, the person, in order to form a more perfect union," and "I shall overcome," and "Ask not what I can do for our country…." -- the Rev. William Barber, President of the North Carolina NAACP turned the political convention into a religious revival. Barber is one of the religious leaders who has organized "Moral Mondays" when groups of progressive religious folk descend upon the state capitol in Raleigh and lobby for policies that are consistent with biblical principles. Or at least with the biblical principles that cohere with the political left. Rev. Barber was passionate, and his explicitly religious voice was welcome, but his list of concerns did not once stray from the orthodoxy of the left. At a political convention, perhaps it is expecting too much to hope a religious leader would show the moral and intellectual sophistication demonstrated by John Gehring, of Faith in Public Life, in this essay. And, as I say, it is always worth reminding Americans, especially some secular Democrats, that the moral compass of the Christian faith does not, as some of our conservative friends think, begin and end with the human pelvis.

The most moving part of the entire evening focused on an American Muslim soldier who was killed in Iraq. Khizr Khan spoke movingly about his son, Humayun, and about what it means to be an American. The family emigrated from the United Arab Emirates. Their son graduated from the University of Virginia and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star posthumously for facing down a suicide bomber after having first ordered his men back. There was, in short, authority in this father's patriotism: He sacrificed his son for this country and, as he pointed out in his very pointed speech, Donald Trump has "sacrificed nothing." Khan, his wife silent at his side, also challenged Trump's understanding of America. "Donald Trump: Have you even read the U.S. Constitution?" Khan asked. "I will gladly lend you my copy" which he produced from his breast pocket.

Retired Gen. John Allen, former Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan then took the stage with about three dozen other generals, admirals and vets. Allen, a Marine, brought a hoorah sensibility to his speech, which he half-shouted. (I fear the shouting was in part made necessary by protests from the Bernie or Bust crowd, more evidence that these people are beyond the pale and beneath contempt.) Allen's passion was a response to the too cool Obama. The room burst into chants of "USA!" The convention organizers had distributed large American flags throughout the hall that were waved enthusiastically. There were lots of American flags last week in Cleveland, too, but they were all neatly lined up behind the podium. The patriotism on display in Philly was more rambunctious, and certainly celebrated by a more diverse crowd. Then, another immigrant veteran who lost his leg in Iraq took the stage, with another memorable story. The Democrats, unlike the Republicans, offered story after story rather than assertion after assertion. It was compelling.

Chelsea Clinton introduced her mother and public speaking is not her calling either. She mentioned "Sundays at church" when describing her growing up. And, the stories she told of her mother demonstrated her empathy even if they blurred the line between being mother of Chelsea and a parent to the country: Newsflash! Americans are electing a president not a parent, and Democrats tend to conflate the two in unfortunate ways. The video that followed was starkly different. In Morgan Freeman's deep, compelling voice, we were presented with tough Hillary.

Then came the big speech. I sympathize with Hillary. We all celebrate the fact that another barrier has been broken, but it is tough to be the one to break it. She knew that this morning's papers would comment on her suit, even though no one commented on her husband's suit after his speech. She knew that if she displayed the kind of full throttled passion Joe Biden demonstrated, she would be called "shrill and hysterical." And, as noted earlier, her speech followed two really great rhetorical exercises this week, one from the first lady and one from the president. I was prepared to give Hillary a pass on most of the presentation but there is no excuse for delivering such a rambling, unwieldy text.

At one point, she acknowledged the challenges Americans face, and then immediately shifted to a recitation of American strengths, not realizing that if you wish to identify with people's anxieties, you have to sit with them for a while, at least rhetorically, and not jump too quickly to an otherwise fine resolution: "Don't let anyone tell you we're weak; We aren't." The rhetoric doesn't soar, but it is a good point and it would have been a great one if it had been set up slowly, which is to say, properly.

Clinton kept to the themes of the night, and indeed of the whole week, and packed plenty of God & Country into the speech. She quoted John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church which is so central to her worldview: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." Not my cup of tea, and a bit lacking in transcendence, but hey, for a roomful of secular lefties, it was nice to hear. And, Clinton's understanding of America and what makes us great was the biggest contrast with the GOP convention last week: There was no gloom and doom in Philly, the diversity of America was seen as the spring from which our exceptionalism gushes forth, not an impediment to that exceptionalism, and the can-do pragmatism of an FDR was put forth as the answer to what ails. All of that was fine, but only fine.

There were some good lines in the speech. "Donald Trump says, and this is a quote, 'I know more about ISIS than the generals.' No, Donald, you don't." This is especially effective because at a time when many Americans have little confidence in public institutions, they retain an enormous affection for and confidence in the military. And, she nailed Trump's temperamental unsuitability for a job of real responsibility with the line, "A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man you can trust with nuclear weapons." She spoke about her long experience, which is a doubtful value at a time when people want change, in a self-deprecating, and just so an effective, way, saying, "Now, sometimes the people at this podium are new to the national stage. As you know, I'm not one of those people." And, speaking to her husband, at the start of the speech, she said, "And, Bill, that conversation we started in the law library 45 years ago is still going strong. It's lasted through good times that filled us with joy, and hard times that tested us." She acknowledged what he failed to do on Tuesday, that the whole country witnessed some of the most painful episodes in their marriage and do not understand it. She did not owe anyone an explanation, but it was smart to acknowledge the difficulty.

Why, then, did she not address head-on the questions about her veracity? This was her best chance to lance that boil and while there is no way to dispel in one speech an attitude that has developed over years, she could have said, "I know that some people think I am not forthcoming, or even truthful. I want to distinguish between the two. I always try and tell the truth. And, yes, if you have lived the life I have lived, you learn to be guarded. Donald Trump says he 'tells it like it is' but then goes on to spout nonsense or nasty untruths, and not about himself, but about his fellow Americans. I can't promise you all that I will be an open book, especially about my personal life, but I will always be frank and candid about the public business of these United States." Would that have helped? It couldn't hurt. At least it would have kept pundits like me from noting that she is unwilling to face her most obvious liability straightforwardly, that she has so far failed to empower the people around her to challenge her to do so, and that these are not traits the commend themselves in a political leader. On the other hand, she handled the history making quality of her nomination with grace and aplomb, neither exploiting it nor ignoring it.

Next week, I will run a couple of posts about the state of the race at this moment. The contrast between the two conventions could scarcely have been more obvious or more stark. The candidates are people of wildly different backgrounds and temperament. Overall, the Democrats accomplished more of what they wanted to get out of their convention than the Republicans achieved from theirs. Both parties have large and obvious points of dissonance within their ranks and their proposals. Nonetheless, what is at stake in this election is now obvious to all morally serious people: Only one candidate is dangerous and must be prevented from winning this election. Whatever you think of Hillary, she is not dangerous per se. Donald Trump embodies everything that is hateful about America. His election would be a disaster. It must be prevented.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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