By MARSHA MERCER
One thing hasn’t changed since Democrats first nominated a Clinton for president in 1992.
A national political convention is still “the ideal forum -- perhaps the only forum left – for what has proved to be a remarkably enduring form of American folk art: the political oration.” So wrote The New Yorker nearly a quarter century ago.
“In an age of sound-bites and manufactured images, it turns out, we still appreciate the real thing, the stem-winder. We’re a people that likes to orate, and to be orated at,” an unsigned “Talk of the Town” column in the magazine’s July 27, 1992 issue said.
Some of the best political speakers of the era had just spoken at Madison Square Garden, where presidential nominee Bill Clinton shared his very personal story of growing up fatherless with his hard-working mother and devoted grandparents.
“I still believe in a place called Hope,” Clinton said, extolling the simple values of his hometown.
Surprisingly, in the age of Instagram and 140-character tweets, nearly 26 million people tuned into the 2016 Democratic convention’s first night, when first lady Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders spoke, according to the Nielsen TV ratings.
That was about 3 million more viewers than watched the Republican convention’s first night, with Melania Trump. When the final numbers are in, this year’s conventions likely will have drawn more viewers than in 2012 or 2008.
Why do people still care about this ancient form of political communication?
My guess is that everybody loves a good story, and, this year especially voters are hungry for emotional connection.
Since Ronald Reagan painted rhetorical pictures of morning in America, most politicians have used political convention speeches to inspire. There’s an art to giving a speech that tugs at heartstrings and shows personal values without being cloying. There’s also an art to turning complex issues into understandable take-aways.
People don’t want the pros and cons of the Trans-Pacific Partnership; they want When Bill Met Hillary.
Bill Clinton did not disappoint in his speech Tuesday night. Clinton made his wife’s career in politics and government sound like a love story in a movie. Fighting the knock that Hillary Clinton is a status-quo candidate, the former president said: “She’s the best darn change-maker I ever met in my life.”
One of the main stories out of the Republican convention in Cleveland was Melania Trump’s speech. Unfortunately, the news was about echoes of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech. Trump had lifted several phrases of seemingly personal stories about family and parental values.
While most leading Republicans stayed away from Donald Trump’s convention, the presidential candidate used his acceptance speech to paint a dark picture of the state of America – and to bash Clinton.
In Philadelphia, Democrats offered a brighter view of America, waving “Love trumps hate” signs and often talking about love -- when they weren’t blasting Trump.
“We are all neighbors and we must love neighbors as ourselves,” Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Clinton’s new running mate, said, before mocking Trump.
Vice President Joe Biden unified the raucous crowd by emphasizing the importance of the middle class, a group Biden said Trump neither understands nor empathizes with. Trump has “no clue” how to make America great, Biden said.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a rising Democratic star, said: “Patriotism is love of country, but you can’t love your country without loving your countrymen and countrywomen . . . We are not called to be a nation of tolerance. We are called to be a nation of love.”
Michelle Obama stirred emotions with personal reflections about her family: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves and I watch my daughters – two beautiful, intelligent, black young women – playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
“I am more optimistic about the future of America than ever before,” President Barack Obama said Wednesday night. “There has never been a man or a woman – not me, not Bill – more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president,” he said.
Will all the oratory matter? We’ll know in November.
©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.