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Obama's Nomination Speech In Denver and Dayton

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DAYTON, Ohio, 28 August 2008 -- Barack Obama likes to go to the Lincoln Memorial in the middle of the night, when no one else is around and it's quiet; he sits there and thinks. Over the past year on the campaign trail, the Senator, now the Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States, has mentioned this predilection once or twice. As I have often done while composing my posts at 3 AM, I'm imagining Senator Obama on the dark steps below the floodlit presence of the first President from Illinois. But this time I'm perched on a stool in a bar while watching Obama deliver his acceptance speech to the throng of 85,000 supporters crowded into the Denver football stadium. I've just flown in from Denver to cover Senator McCain and most likely his new running mate in the morning. The bar crowd is silent, intent on the biographical film that is formally introducing Barack Obama to many Americans for the first time. In this intimate setting, the video is compelling.

When Senator Obama himself takes the stage at Invesco Field, the columnar portico behind him reminds us all of the Memorial, as well as the speech Martin Luther King delivered there, before another throng, on another August 28, 45 years ago. But it is only a fleeting reminder, just as, to my surprise -- despite advance notice to the press -- Obama's speech seems only fleetingly to recall King intoning "I have a dream" and Lincoln addressing his followers in Springfield, not at all. Obama chooses neither Lincoln's brevity nor King's rotund oratory, suffused with Scripture and built on contrasting metaphors of light and dark. The themes of transformation and fulfillment and the call to patriotism that have sealed King's speech in the American memory are absent tonight. We know that Barack Obama can carry us to the mountaintop, for he did so on the nights of his victories in Iowa and South Carolina, on two very different occasions in Philadelphia. Clearly, therefore, the tenor of tonight's speech is Obama's choice. Locked in a tight race with his opponent, at a time when many Americans say that they still don't know what Obama stands for, he has chosen to lay out some of his policy prescriptions, just as he does in his quotidian stump speeches, and to attack John McCain.

Despite the lack of soaring oratory and the absence of the kind of lines that schoolchildren would memorize decades from now, Obama's speech is a different kind of masterpiece. It is almost symphonic in the way it moves back and forth between critiques of the last eight years and commitments for the future. Obama himself is a master of modulation, relaxed and humorous, almost low-key, one minute and the next pumped, his voice rising on waves of rhythm and energy and controlled passion. There is a warm intimacy to the moment provided by the backlit windows behind Obama. Although he is standing far downstage from the windowed portico, on television the windowpanes appear to be right behind him. Likely by happenstance, the windows recall the poetic moment in Joe Biden's acceptance speech for the vice-presidential nomination the night before, when the Senator from Delaware, as if he were standing in the dark outside a kitchen window, said that he could almost see the lights at an American family's kitchen table. Tonight the windowed perspective pushes Barack Obama forward so that he is almost with us in the dim bar. He's talking just as he has always done, day after day on the campaign trail since the Ohio primary, about his plans to help Americans economically in our day-to-day lives. Those months of town hall meetings and roundtables are paying off, for tonight Barack Obama is delivering with the distilled clarity that only such preparation makes possible.

And in the end, of course, Obama speaks of King and takes up the adjuration of the "young preacher from Georgia" to march forward and not to turn back. As King did before him, Obama takes up the old pastoral cry "we cannot walk alone," and he ends on a note of Scripture -- not the King James Version dear to Martin Luther King but a newer American version for a new century. On the stage set of the windowed portico, an American flag flutters in an evening breeze; on television, the flag appears to be one, directly behind Senator Obama, even though the occasional tracking shot reveals that there are in fact a long row of flags. Forty years ago, King invoked the power of contrast through words ("a joyous daybreak/the long night"). Tonight the contrast is visual -- between the ordinary language of the speech itself and the almost music Barack Obama through the force of his presence makes for us.

***
Only yesterday, I am sitting in a different bar, at the CNN Grill next to Denver's Pepsi Center, and watching the roll call of the states on the bar TV. Next to me dines an older woman and blogger like myself. We have just finished a live video for CNN.com on the subject of women in the blogosphere. On the screen before us, Nancy Pelosi reaches the state of New York. Suddenly, Hillary Clinton is on the floor among the delegates from her adopted state and moving to give the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama by acclamation. Realizing that my companion is tearing up, I say, "Isn't it great that Hillary's ending it on such a high note, on a note of generosity?" I've met my new blogger friend only hours before, and I'm thinking she might have been a Hillary supporter, for out on the campaign trail I've encountered many, many women of color who supported Hillary Clinton. "Generosity -- the good feeling -- that moment doesn't last, does it?" I say. We look at one another and laugh conspiratorially -- but suddenly my companion is sobbing, "I'm three generations from slavery," and I'm holding her in my arms. "I'm sorry, I didn't know it would affect me this way," she says, and I'm thinking that all of my maternal American ancestors, every single one, owned slaves.

Behind us, the CNN Grill is filling with the elites of old media, for Nancy Pelosi is due any minute, now that the roll call is finished, for an intimate moment with the press. As the reporters stream in, no one seems to notice us two at the bar. My friend composes herself as a red ladder for Pelosi and the requisite cameras materialize between the bar and the CNN.com work space that dominates the end of the room. I'm thinking for a minute about my maternal ancestors, English Puritans and Scots-Irish and French Huguenots who sailed to America for religious freedom and built new lives here on the backs of Africans, even as they thought they were creating the New Jerusalem, that shining city on the hill -- indeed one family named their sons Sion for two hundred years. But mostly I'm thinking about another contrast, between old media and new, and as I turn toward the red ladder, I can see the CNN.com recording space, open to the dining tables, right behind the ladder. So quickly the different media are merging. It seems like in the one year I've been writing for OffTheBus the reaction to me and to bloggers like my bar companion has gone from who the heck are you? to can I use you in my own work? to let's work together. Maybe. In a funny way, this is the promise of Barack Obama -- that we Americans can achieve our dreams together and not at the expense of one another.

For that one moment in the CNN bar, while my blogger companion composes herself and I contemplate the past and a possible future, it seems like Hillary Clinton's motion of acclamation and its acceptance is a hinge of American history -- I can almost feel the door swing and a hint of breeze from its motion. My friend and I are older than most of the people in the room, and yet we are the new. Barack Obama is black and yet he is also white, as we are to be reminded later that evening when his maternal uncle rises to applause in the Pepsi Center. My companion and I -- my people owned her people -- and so once we traveled a dark road together. Now, hopefully, we do not walk alone into a better day.

I can hear Nancy Pelosi's progress through the CNN patio outside the grill. I have to depart before she gets here because I must hand off my blogger pass to someone else from OffTheBus, waiting for me outside the security perimeter. (New media is not quite here -- yet.) Somehow I don't mind, for in overall scheme of things whatever Speaker Pelosi says is unimportant. The 2008 Democratic Convention, for all its hundreds of events and parties and forums and demonstrations, has been about only one thing: nominating the first African-American for President of the United States.

Tonight at Invesco Field in Denver the American Democratic Party dramatized King's dream of forty years ago and gave it fulfillment. A hundred years from now an American schoolteacher will ask, "What happened on August 28, 2008?" A classroom will raise their hands in answer.

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