07/16/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Mile High Moment

This isn't hype. It's fact. We're about seven weeks from the biggest speech in at least a generation by any figure in American politics.

If you can be there in person, go. If you live west of the Mississippi, take your children. It's an event you'll all remember -- one of those moments people recall in their old age with "I was there" -- the rest of your lives.

I can't imagine a household, union hall or VFW post in this country -- for or against him -- not glued to a TV the final night of the Democratic National Convention when Barack Obama addresses 76,000 supporters at Mile High Stadium.

History embraces immortals at moments like this.

Navratalova at Wimbledon. Gretzky at the Stanley Cup. Woods at the Masters. When titans take the field, the rest of us watch with awe. We suspend our sense of the possible utterly confident that champions will transcend.

Make no mistake. Mile High Stadium -- where he'll speak to a crowd so large it's virtually faceless and have his words shot around the world in real time by the new media of the twenty-first century -- is Obama's house.

With the heavens as a backdrop, I'll bet the ranch he closes with the mother of all light, sound (and probably fireworks) shows instead of the silly, predictable balloon drop we've yawned at for years.

It's a big idea from a campaign riding the sublime. If Obama delivers, he'll complete the eloquent self-introduction he made to most of us four years ago, when he said:

...the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an "awesome God" in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

Nothing either campaign can plan will come close to matching the impact this hour could have. We've seen Obama in 26 debates and McCain in 21, and neither is a master of that forum.

Whatever the cost/benefit, acceptance speeches this year are set as close together as any in modern memory. That is where the one-to-one comparison voters and the press usually get from October debates will happen.

McCain's speech is set seven days later -- as far as we know, in a Midwest convention center with the predictable balloon drop -- allowing the shadow Obama casts to frame the comparisons reporters and voters inevitably will make.

Obama's decision has boxed McCain's campaign into a strategic corner where the knee-jerk response would be to hype expectations for Obama and low-ball expectations for their candidate. Doing that, however, puts McCain's spin doctors in the odd position of sounding like ersatz Democratic shills.

They can either take the hit or take the bait. Either way, McCain will be offering Americans more tired, predictable thinking when he is the candidate who most needs to stake out bold positions and grab the public's imagination with big ideas.

It's fashionable in some quarters these days to wonder if conservatism has run its course. Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Times Book Review and Week in Review section, who is working on a biography of William F. Buckley, said recently that Buckley realized at the end of his life that the conservative movement was falling apart.

George Packer's excellent piece in the May 26 New Yorker, "The Fall of Conservatism: Have the Republicans run out of ideas?" documents Buckley's belief that "The conservative movement lost its raison d'etre with the end of Communism and never got it back."

Packer argues: "The fact that the least conservative, lease divisive Republican in the 2008 race is the last one standing -- despite being despised by significant voices on the right -- shows how little life is left in the movement that Goldwater began, Nixon brought into power, Ronald Reagan gave mass appeal, New Gingirch radicalized, Tom DeLay criminalized and Bush allowed to break in to pieces."

The article offers dour quips from the likes of David Brooks, Pat Buchanan and Ed Rollins, but perhaps the most prescient comes from David Frum, Bush's former speech writer, who calculated that Buckley was 25 when the modern conservative movement began and 82 when it ended. "One of Buckley's great gifts," he says, "was the gift of timing."

Which brings us back to Aug. 28.

There's been a lot of talk this spring and summer about what Obama means when he promises change. Skeptics have questioned his ability "to close the deal" with voters, and pundits wonder openly if "what once seemed like a movement has imploded into a mere candidacy."

Aug. 28 is Obama's night to answer those questions -- to convince Americans that he's offering change that transcends a swing of a partisan pendulum back to the left, and to convince free and enlightened nations everywhere on the globe that the America they embraced in the wake of Sept. 11 yearns again for their respect and friendship

Forty-five years to the day after Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered arguably the most revered speech in modern American history, another black man -- one from Lincoln's own state -- will accept the nomination of America's oldest political party for president of this country.

The summer is an odd time in a presidential election cycle, because most people just aren't paying attention. That's why campaigns use the summer to trot out position papers, raise massive amounts of money and field test research from polls and focus groups on how to frame themselves and their opponent.

That's what is going on now, and though political junkies love it, it's really nothing more than gamesmanship.

So, take the vacation. Enjoy the Olympics, and accept your neighbor's invitation for a backyard barbecue. But mark your calendar for Aug. 28. A champion is going to take the field in a game with global and historical implications. The moment promises to be magical.