I write from Telluride, Colorado where I arrived just before Barack
Obama began to deliver his convention address. Of course, I watched
it and, more importantly, heard it. That is, I heard one of
the most artfully crafted speeches I recall. He did not use the
phrase I've been pressing on my friends in the campaign. But it was
really about the rebuilding of the "social contract" among Americans.
That social contract has been in tatters for a long time, as early as
Bill Clinton's second term. And, while the evidence for this could be
felt palpably by increasing numbers of Americans, even increasing
numbers under George Bush, it was also sensed psychologically and
spiritually in the sullen lives of many in the citizenry and
especially by way of contrast to the indulgence of smug super-rich.
The fact is that I did not really appreciate the convention, aside
from a few particular speeches: that of Al Gore which I heard the day
after it was given; that of (I have sheepishly to admit again) John
Kerry; and, of course, Ted Kennedy's farewell, may God grant him
health and life.
I came into politics -- we called it the "new politics" then -- against a
very young Kennedy in 1962 when I (for my sins) was active in the
Democratic primary campaign of putative "peace candidate" and Harvard
historian H. Stuart Hughes, grandson of the late Chief Justice of the
United States and a veteran with those in the Office of Strategic
Services (O.S.S., prelude to the C.I.A.) who were ready to accommodate
each and every ambition of the Soviet Union. The third candidate in
the race was Eddie McCormack, nephew of the then Speaker of the House. In any case, the Hughes campaign expired with about 1 1/2% of
the vote almost all of whom were actually pro-Castro, another station
on the cross of fellow-traveling. It's a long time ago. But the
rancor against Teddy took many seasons before it passed.
It was actually exacerbated when Robert Kennedy barged into Eugene
McCarthy's presidential campaign in 1968 and brought with him the
relentless momentum of the clan and its blindly ambitious hangers-
on. 1968 ended in the spring, first with the assassination of Martin
Luther King and then with the killing by a Palestinian terrorist of
Bobby himself. (Yes, do not forget that.) Gene when into St. John's
seminary to punish himself, I think. But the ragged edge of the
relationship between the Kennedy Democrats and the McCarthy Democrats
did not get smoother,
Indeed, I never publicly admitted my admiration for Teddy until after I saw him at Gene's funeral in the National
Cathedral. No, I do not admire his foreign policy. And, yes, that
means we have on this broad matter shifted sides. But I do admire,
very much admire, his insistence that American liberalism needs be
rigorous and vigorous, impassioned and inspired. He probably is the
most morally attuned member of the Senate, and I want to pay tribute
to him here again and to apologize for all the shabby thoughts I had
about him in the past.
I believe that Barack Obama carries Teddy's torch.
So why didn't I much like the convention?
First of all, I still recall when Democratic conventions (I had and
have no interest in Republican ones) were a context for intellectual
argument, moral confrontation and political decision-making above and
beyond the choosing of the candidates by acclamation. In that sense,
I was for a brief moment sympathetic to Hillary's demand for a roll
call. But then it became perfectly obvious that she was bargaining for
deference and nothing more, except trying to make the Obama people
crawl, which they did. Go back and read about the 1948 convention and
the ones of 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972. This is not nostalgia.
My second objection was to the sheer quality of the speeches and the
speakers. The fact is that both talks and talkers, most of them, were
simply dreary, uninspired, repetitive, treacly. The "real folk" were
not the worst, that category belonging to the office-holders whose
dull utterances made my wonder how they ever won an election in the
first place. But the real folk made the party look like a collection
of losers, burdened by pathos as much as by policy. Should the
convention not be an opportunity for us Democrats to show that we are
a party of achievers? Lawyers, theologians (not hack preachers),
doctors, university professors, inspiring scientists, a philosopher or
historian, intrepid business people and social visionaries. Maybe
even an economist or two who, although maybe disagreeing with one
another, might have taught the nation a thing or two, say Larry
Summers and Robert Reich, not at one with one another, but both
My third complaint is about the music which was about as distinctive
as the sounds you hear in your gym. Relentless and dumbing. The
party is fighting for the patriotic vote. Why not a chorus, maybe
even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, singing the old traditional and
still inspiring "America the Beautiful," "The Battle Hymn of the
Republic" (yes, there wars worth fighting), "America the Beautiful,"
"God Bless America," "Lift Every Voice and Sing," "If I Had a Hammer,"
"This Land is You Land," "This is My Country," "Ballad for Americans,"
maybe Neil Diamond's "America." I bet each of you might add one or
two. Or, in concert style, Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common
Man," something from Dvorak's "New World Symphony," maybe Leonard
Bernstein's "Kaddish," dedicated "to the beloved memory of John F.
End of my reflections.