I had an epiphany while watching Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last night: that speech was not for me. I’m sure I knew that already to some extent, but it really became clear to me in the middle of that speech as I realized that I am entirely immune to platitudinous applause lines.
It has nothing to do with the speech, which I thought was well written and crafted by the speechwriters to put to rest some of the lingering doubts about her husband among undecided voters. It had even less to do with Michelle Obama’s performance, which was pretty much perfect. She’s nearly as good a speaker as her husband is (not to mention really attractive….oops, I guess I mentioned it). It’s just the nature of such speeches, which are filled with lines that are so canned that they could have been written by a software program — Political Inspiration for Windows Vista.
I see lines like this:
He and my mom poured everything they had into me and Craig. It was the greatest gift a child could receive: never doubting for a single minute that you’re loved, and cherished, and have a place in this world. And thanks to their faith and their hard work, we both were able to go on to college. So I know firsthand from their lives — and mine — that the American Dream endures.
And they do absolutely nothing to me. Has anyone ever delivered a speech like that at a convention and not held up their parents as paragons of virtue so one-dimensional that they sound cribbed from an Ozzie and Harriet script? I’m not doubting her sincerity; I’m sure her parents are terrific people. But these kinds of stories, forged in the fires of a thousand focus groups for maximum emotional effect, long ago left the land of trite and settled in the land of ‘yawn.’
But that’s okay because, as I said, that speech was not for me. It wasn’t even for the people at the convention; those folks, merely by virtue of being there as delegates, are the True Believers. Their reaction borders on the Pavlovian, conditioned as they are to applaud wildly whenever the speaker pauses for a moment (which is not an insult to them; it would be difficult not to be swept up in the emotion of the whole thing for those who have committed so much to a political battle).
That speech was for the folks on the fence, those voters who have withheld their approval of Obama based on a vague feeling that he wasn’t “one of us.” The point of that speech was to say, “Our family is just like your family” — or perhaps like you imagine or wish your family to be. The point was to soothe those vague, perhaps unspoken fear that Obama, with his foreign sounding name and foreign-born father and youth spent in other countries, is not quite part of the tribe.
There was a big kernel of truth inside all that lofty rhetoric, of course. In many ways, Obama fits the perfect archetype of so many American stories. He’s a mutt — a product of immigration, a mixing of cultures and races, a kid born into difficult circumstances who became a major success through hard work and intelligence. They needed to tell that story and I think they did it effectively. They made the life stories of Barack and Michelle Obama sound like everyone else’s life story and that is exactly what they needed to do.
But it was still a reminder to me that I am not the audience for such a speech, just as I am not the audience for almost anything in partisan politics. I’m simply not capable of getting weepy eyed in response to such speeches, just as I’m not capable of thinking in partisan terms. My interest in politics comes not from an interest in the sport of elections but from an interest in ideas. And while I loudly advocate for the ideas I believe in, I’ll probably always feel remain an outsider, an observer, when watching political conventions of either party.