09/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Denver: Words Turn the Tide

In August of 1972 I sat in a bar with some buddies watching the Republican Convention on a TV. It was "Pat Nixon Appreciation Night" in Miami, complete with tribute film and a phalanx of fresh faced kids dressed as cheerleaders. The theme was "Pat's special connection to young people" something I'd missed but a point worth making as Viet Nam tore generations asunder. At the finale Pat appeared. Her remarks went something like this:

'Thank you, young people. Young people, thank you. Thank you, thank you, young people.'

Then, like the dream of our reconciliation, she was gone.

At this convention the theme is again reconciliation. The country isn't nearly as divided as it was under Nixon, but Nixon's heirs work overtime to make it feel as if it were. And wounds of the primaries are fresh.

On Monday Michelle Obama, African American daughter of Chicago's South Side who made it on merit to Princeton and Harvard, had her work cut out for her.

Comparing Michelle to Pat isn't fair. Listening to Michelle I remembered every speech by any First Lady but Hillary I've heard since and thought wow, she's amazing.

Republican commentators expressed "disappointment" that the speech "lacked substance". These are the folks who berated Hillary's wonkishness and celebrated Nixon and the Bush wives for keeping to themselves.

Michelle's speech was profound in a way no laundry list of issues could be. Like her husband, she speaks bravely of intimate things, of loving him and her children, in a way that lifted her above tinny political 'family values' rhetoric.

Meanwhile McCain was dispatching his beer heiress wife on a bizarre 'mission' to war torn Georgia -- that's right, the country, not the state. A week ago he proposed entering her in a topless "Miss Buffalo Chip" beauty contest. Apparently she's being repackaged.

Sending Cindy McCain to Georgia is every bit as pointless, if not nearly as dangerous, as sending Joe Lieberman, another McCain envoy, unless of course the McCains own a home there.

Republicans have tried to Swift-boat Michelle Obama. Their basic story line: Miss Buffalo Chip versus Miss Chip on her Shoulder; Anyone who saw Michelle rise to her moment has now been inoculated against their attacks.

Before Michele we saw Ted Kennedy lion of the senate and of a century, walk with halting gait, white mane somewhat shorn, to the podium. I was lucky to be in a box of the Service Employees International Union, invited by Kevin Doyle, an old friend and a vice president of 32 BJ, the janitors' union as he spoke. I sat next to fiery SEIU president Andy Stern, who wiped tears from his eyes in the midst of applauding, as did I.

Teddy stumped for me when I was thirty and running for Congress. As we stood on stage he told me to wave to the cameras even though there was no one there I knew. I thought of all the times I'd seen him since, how much he'd inspired me, but never more than tonight.

Walking home I thought of my grandfather, once a custodian in Hartford schools, who sixty years ago tried to organize a union. I thought of Michelle Obama and Ted Kennedy and their brave journeys to Denver and felt proud to be a Democrat.

WEDNESDAY MORNING: Each Convention night is a singular drama but the days begin to run together. I'm on Radio Row, a rabbit warren deep in Denver's Pepsi Center. At long tables head phoned hosts sit cheek to jowl shouting at guests.

I'm here for the Stephanie Miller show, a talk radio rarity, a successful national show hosted by a liberal. Stephanie's the daughter of William Miller, Barry Goldwater's 1964 running mate, which proves that at least sometimes the fruit actually does fall far from the tree.

As I get ready to gab North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad finishes a segment with Miller. Conrad was once Dakota's tax commissioner. Talk about politically gifted, he got so popular while collecting taxes they made him a senator.

As Conrad leaves, technicians swarm around us. Looking for notes, Miller shoves her laptop across the table and into a full cup of scalding hot coffee. I can testify to the temperature because it lands in my lap. I jump from my seat like a cartoon cat.

If your next cup of joe doesn't perk you up, try pouring it on your leg. Too proud to howl, I writhe as someone hands me headphones. I hear theme music. Stephanie, seated inches away, smiles sweetly: 'So Bill, as a former Clinton advisor how do you feel Hillary did last night and what can we expect tonight from Bill?" I open my mouth and start talking.

How well? It's my ninth Convention. Only two speeches, both in 1984, matched it: Mario Cuomo's "City on a Hill" keynote and Jesse Jackson's "God is not finished with me yet" concession. She did everything Obama, her party or her country could have asked, and then did some more.

As she waved I pictured Obama waving with her, looking ahead to victory and never looking back. I wish he's swallowed his misgivings and invited her onto his ticket. But as she herself now says there's no time for looking back. All eyes must be on the prize.

Democrats, I tell Miller, have trouble with only two major demographics: women and men. On Tuesday Hillary spoke to women. On Wednesday, Bill Clinton, smooth as two fingers of bourbon, with more stories than the Norton's Anthology, would talk to the men.

Unsourced news reports say he's unhappy with his assigned topic; to explain why Barack should be commander in chief. I doubt they're right; Clinton is so shrewd he must see his opportunity.

Republicans say Obama's not ready. This crowd backed Ronald Reagan, whose foreign policy experience was making movies that, while shot in Hollywood, had exotic settings, and George W. Bush, who was so not into world affairs he bestirred himself to go beyond our borders exactly twice before running for president.

Now, because Obama's young and McCain's a decorated Civil War veteran, experience is all. But if experience doesn't show itself in judgment, it has been for nothing.

McCain is war's biggest cheerleader. Suckered by Ahmed Chalabi and every other hustler looking to hook us into war, he travels the world talking trash to friend and foe alike. Eventually, real diplomats must clean up the messes he leaves behind, try as best they can to mediate conflict peacefully, their jobs made harder by the after shocks of puerile bombast.

Bill Clinton can remind America that just eight years ago, we looked first to diplomacy and used force only as a last resort. He can look American men in the eye and tell them: it's time to grow up. If you aren't acting like an adult you aren't acting like a man.

For talking woman to woman there's no one like Hillary. When it's time to talk Bubbah to Bubbah, there's nobody like Bill. Between them they can talk to the Democrats' two problem demographics like nobody else. However bruised their feelings may be, it looks to me like they're getting the job done.