Obama to Bentsen to Fierce

Speech by former First Lady Michelle Obama, August 17, 2020; Democratic National Convention, First Night

After a long montage of video remarks, roundtables, songs, and super cuts that felt like the ton of previews and ads one sees at movie theaters, the first virtual political convention fell into a recognizable rhythm of speeches. The speeches ran four minutes or less except at the end, where Michelle Obama was accorded eighteen for the keynote address.

            She started oddly, shaking her head so much it became a distraction. But in her opening she laid a trap by describing the presidency:

The job is hard. It requires clearheaded judgment, a mastery of complex and competing issues, a devotion to facts and history, a moral compass, and an ability to listen — and an abiding belief that each of the 330,000,000 lives in this country has meaning and worth. A president’s words have the power to move markets. They can start wars or broker peace. They can summon our better angels or awaken our worst instincts. You simply cannot fake your way through this job.

She went on to contrast American life during the Barack Obama years with the present day, and reprised her “when they go low we go high” line from the 2016 convention. I thought this section of the speech sagged, particularly because I had been conditioned by the previous two hours to expect a short segment. But then Obama adapted to the present day that classic moment from the 1988 vice-presidential debate when, after Dan Quayle name-checked John F. Kennedy, Lloyd Bentsen dropped a syllogism bomb:

Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

            Obama’s version had a similar merciless logic. She is married to a former president. She knows presidents. Donald Trump cannot do the job. It is what it is. 

The build-up to the punch line included this phrase:

going high means unlocking the shackles of lies and mistrust with the only thing that can truly set us free: the cold, hard truth. 

“Shackles.” No doubt about what Obama was referencing there. Continuing….

Let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can: Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.

That final sentence, many viewers knew, was a recent Trump excuse for his management of the pandemic. It was not the night’s best poster dunk line in the president’s face. That belonged to Kristen Urquiza of Arizona, who said of her COVID19-succumbed father: My dad was a healthy 65-year old. His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump — and for that he paid with his life. Still, Obama’s cut will be remembered and probably recycled in clips as often as Urquiza’s. 

Trump was not there to get pasted in person, as Quayle had been for Bensten. It’s almost better that way, to leave viewers imagining his reaction.

Obama had two more segments to go.

She also knows Joe Biden, and attested to his capabilities.

Then, speaking with an intimate urgency rare if not unique in today’s rhetoric, she talked about voter suppression, and evoked Beyonce’s glamorously aggressive alter ego Sasha Fierce:

right now, folks who know they cannot win fair and square at the ballot box are doing everything they can to stop us from voting….We have got to vote like we did in 2008 and 2012. We’ve got to show up with the same level of passion and hope for Joe Biden. We’ve got to vote early, in person if we can. 

Obama directly spoke to working class voters, summoning them to make the effort to vote even though she knows how exhausted by life they are. She mentioned John Lewis. She was, in her close, riveting.


For my old white male money, the best political speeches of the night belonged to John Kasich and Bernie Sanders. They did the essential work of appealing to Biden doubters to his right and left, respectively. Kasich, unfortunately introduced from a drone’s eye view standing…yes…at a crossroads, implored other Republicans to put nation ahead of party. Sanders, speaking before a pile of sawed logs, sounded as though he had not stopped since the last time we heard him, but he made an up-to-the-minute case against Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and calamitous rule with sparkling specificity and video-sized passion.

To everyone else on political Twitter, it seems, Michelle Obama was the top star. She seemed to transcend the politics that she said, not for the first time, that she hated. That is a tough act to pull off, being politically anti-political, but by the end her head-shaking had turned into pure urgency, and she was the reincarnation of Beyonce’s alter ego, Sasha Fierce: gritty, glamorous, on the attack on behalf of her many fans.


  1. Shawn

    I’m a Johnny Kasich fan since way back; you can see where he grew up in McKees Rocks, PA from my mother’s front porch. I wrote him in when I cast my ballot in 2016. And I wish he were running in 2020. But I wasn’t a fan at all of the idea to put him at a literal crossroad for that speech. I think the setting made the whole thing feel like a stunt, somehow less serious a setting than his remarks deserved. I also felt like his speech was a bit too much about himself — “look at me being the adult and doing what’s right for the country instead of towing the party line — and not enough of a direct appeal to Republican patriots to admit to themselves that the president doesn’t represent their interests, their hopes and dreams, or their idea of what an American president ought to be.

    About Mrs. Obama’s speech, I thought it was really effective, though I agree that there was something distracting/off-putting about the way she shook her head throughout and looked upward a number of times — either looking to high-Heaven or rolling her eyes, I wasn’t sure. I chalk that all up to the weird nature of doing the speech on video, though. Her remarks, though, were hard-hitting without the ugliness that is the president’s bread and butter. She demonstrated what it means to go high while absolutely tearing down a political foe. And though we couldn’t see Trump’s reaction in real time like the nation watched Quayle in 88, it was only a matter of hours before the president started his predictable Twitter meltdown.

    On the whole, I guess night one was as successful as it could be for a virtual convention, but I do hope the theater of it all improves and that the quality of the rhetoric intensifies as this thing keeps on rolling.

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