One question hung over the proceedings at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night: Is it possible to reintroduce someone to the American people who is already so well known that she is identified by her first name only? Think of it, how many people are there like that? Beyoncé. Oprah. And Hillary. When you are that well known, it is hard to alter people's image of you. But the Dems gave it their best shot.
Before Bill Clinton gave the evening's main address in the 10 o'clock hour, with all the networks tuned in, the convention planners brought more people with testimonials to Hillary's work on their behalf. The "Mothers of the Movement," the group of women whose children have been the victims of gun violence, were very powerful, not least because of their very, very explicit, even raw, Christian faith. "We're not standing here because God is good," said Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland. "We're standing here because he's great!" She continued, "What a blessing to be standing here so that Sandy can still speak through her mother."
The mothers had been preceded by a video, also powerful, that showed them meeting as a group for the first time. At the meeting was Hillary Clinton. The video showed one of the mothers asking what she could do to prevent further violence, and you hear the ever practical Hillary suggesting they join forces. Mothers of the Movement was born. And, in the face of the derision hurled at concerns about black lives last week in Cleveland, Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, said to the crowd, "This isn't about being politically correct. This is about saving our children." These women displayed so much dignity on the stage. Their Christian testimonies were worthy of a Billy Graham revival in the '50s, and the contrast between the heartfelt Christian faith of these women and the conservative Christianism on display last week at the Republican National Convention was acute. That Christianism, equating the faith with a certain variety of American political expression, lends a whole new meaning to the phrase politically correct.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, unwittingly demonstrated why the pro-life movement will eventually triumph, not in all particulars, but in ways difficult to discern but clear. How can this be? She touted the story of a woman who had a breast cancer screening and was able to get treatment and recover from the cancer. Even the president of Planned Parenthood, in front of an overwhelmingly friendly crowd, did not dare tell the story of a woman who had an abortion and feels really good about it. Richards made no mention of the Democratic Party platform's first-ever call to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which doesn't mean her organization will not push for that repeal should Clinton win. But, Richards knows her issue polls miserably, so she left it out. It will be a test of Clinton's understanding of politics if she, correctly, tells Richards that if she wants Hyde repealed, she has to go out and convince the country it is a good idea -- or if she goes along with the inside baseball game that pits women's groups and other secular interest groups against Catholic, Christian and disability groups.
The most powerful of the testimonies came from survivors of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, especially that of Lauren Manning, who was badly burned that day and met Hillary in the hospital; they have worked together since on efforts to guarantee funding for survivor benefits and rebuilding efforts. Manning emphasized that Clinton was kind and concerned, but her story displayed something that Clinton needs to highlight: She is a doggedly hard worker. You may or may not trust her, but things in her administration will never fail as a result of her not working hard enough.
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These stories, and there were others (although the non-politicians did far better than the pols), achieved something the GOP failed to do last week: They provided evidence and stories about what Hillary had achieved. Last week, in Cleveland, speaker after speaker said that Donald Trump was a good guy, a good dad, a caring boss, but there were few anecdotes and stories that made the claim stick in the brain and the ones that were there -- I recall something about him sending a note to a dad with a special needs kid -- were ineffective and weak: A parent of a special needs child may feel better with a note, but they need real assistance too, programs and staff that will help their child reach their potential and give mom and dad a break now and then. You had the feeling that Donald, like a latter day version of an 18th-century king, felt it was enough that the hoi polloi got to touch his garment. Think Trump, think cufflinks. After last night's testimonies, think Clinton, think sleeves rolled up.
Then came the big dawg himself, Bill Clinton. It was not his best speech, not even as good as his speech four years ago commending Barack Obama for re-election. Most of the speech detailed Hillary's various efforts at addressing social injustices throughout her career. Bill references a dozen or so states where she had made an impact while still a young woman: fighting against segregated schools in Alabama, registering Latino voters with union leader Franklin Garcia in Texas, and working for improvements in the criminal justice system in South Carolina. After the speech, conservative critics said this long list simply reinforced the fact that she has been around for such a long time, intertwined with a system most Americans believe is broken. But she has to live with that rap any way. I think these tales of her early activism might strike a chord with young people whom she needs to turn out in November and many of whom do not recall the Clinton presidency 16 years ago.
At times, Bill's speech was too self-referential, too "enough about you, let's talk about me." At times, it made one cringe. When he described his first effort to approach her, while they were both students at Yale Law School, he said, "After the class, I followed her out, intending to introduce myself. I got close enough to touch her back, but I couldn't do it. Somehow, I knew this would not be just another tap on the shoulder, that I might be starting something I couldn't stop." If only Bill had mastered the lesson that touching a young woman on the shoulder could lead to something he couldn't stop. It is weird hearing him talk about all the wonderful times in their marriage while ignoring the one part of that marriage into which we were all dragged by the lethal combination of Bill's indiscretions and Ken Starr's investigations. Again, maybe all that is baked into the Hillary cake, and hearing Bill talk about the good times was directed at the young people who do not remember the blue dress. But, the fear that the strange psychology that characterizes their marriage would result in Bill's saying something that hurts her, as he has done in the past, that fear was not realized.
Certainly, it did not hurt to let people know their first house had 1,100 square feet. Or that she once worked with arch-enemy Tom DeLay on a program to help get foster kids into adoptive homes, knowing that DeLay was himself a parent with an adopted child. After the evening concluded, liberal commentator Van Jones said that the evening helped connect the dots of Hillary's life so that it formed a cohesive whole, that know people knew who she was: "She is a workaholic do-gooder chick," he opined. I would not call a woman a "chick," but I would have added "Northern Methodist church lady." Indeed, anyone who thinks the GOP is the party of religion and the Democrats the party of progressive secularists will have to reconcile the frequent and explicit religious expressions on the stage in Philadelphia. I have been surprised by it, and delightedly so.
The evening finished with a photo montage of all the previous presidents who, of course, shared a common characteristic (and two until Obama): They were all guys. After they reached the 44th president, there was an image of glass breaking, and then the screen showed Hillary sitting back home in Chappaqua, N.Y. She spoke to the convention, but it would have been more powerful if she had appeared in person, the second time she missed that chance. Still, there is history in the air in Philadelphia, something that has been largely overlooked throughout the primary season. The country may decide that this is not the person they want to be president, but for the first time, they will have a realistic choice to put a woman in the center chair. That hasn't brought on the eschaton in other countries, which have long since elected women to their highest office, but it does represent the pulling down of a barrier that needs to be pulled down. And the woman who may inspire the country to pull it down is now revealed, to a degree she had not been before, as the workaholic, do-gooder, Northern Methodist church lady.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]