DENVER – In 1908, when Democrats first gathered in Denver, African-American activists asked the party to make a place for them — inside the convention, in the platform and in the campaign to come. At the very least, they asked, Democrats should take a stand against lynching.
William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee for president, vetoed even that modest outreach — fearing that to do so would weaken the party’s hold on what was then referred to as “the solid south.”
One hundred years passed. A civil rights movement rose. A new generation of political leaders – most, though not all of them, Democrats — stepped gingerly toward the future.
And on Wednesday afternoon, at around 4:50 p.m., the Democratic party nominated an African-American man for president.
There has been a lot of talk, too much talk, about this being a “transformational moment” in American politics.
But it must be said that, if the quadrennial convention is the measure of a political party, then the Democrats have, a century on from their first gathering in Denver, completed a process of transformation.
Despite the bizarrely determined efforts of convention organizers and the campaign of Barack Obama to shift the focus away from nominating speeches and a clumsy roll-call vote — by restructuring the schedule to complete the process while many Americans were still at work — the most historic moment of the convention was its most traditional.
Far from the prying eyes of prime-time television, Democrats undertook the rituals of nominating two candidates for president — Hillary Clinton, the woman who began the campaign as the all-but-certain Democratic nominee, and Obama, the man who upset those best-laid plans.
Such was the desire of the managers of the convention to downplay the actual work of the delegates who have traveled from across the country to be a part of this moment that those chosen to place the names of Clinton and Obama in nomination delivered almost perfunctory remarks.
Michael Wilson, a registered Republican from Florida and an Air Force medic who served in Iraq, nominated Barack Obama with an on-message declaration that, “I’ve seen war up close. I support Barack Obama because America needs a president who has the strength, wisdom and courage to talk to our enemies… who will respect our veterans when they get back home instead of letting them languish without the medical care they deserve.”
Colorado Senator Ken Salazar dressed on-message, wearing a cowboy hat as he seconded the Obama’s nomination. Another second came from Alabama Congressman Artur Davis, D-Ala., who assured the delegates that, “Our time is now!”
The Clinton nominating speeches were better, especially that of veteran United Farm Workers union leader Dolores Huerta, who described herself as a “passionate” Clinton backer and told the convention: “Hillary’s values are the values of my family and my community. For Hillary Clinton, no American is invisible.”
Whether the speeches were muscular or lame, however, the mood was electric in a convention hall that filled rapidly as delegates rushed to be part of the first real convention roll-call vote since Democrats nominated Bill Clinton in 1992.
States, commonwealths and territories grabbed their moments in the limelight — Alabama stayed united behind Clinton, and everyone cheered; Illinois was strong for Obama, and everyone cheered; Guam asked for more self-determination, and everyone cheered.
It quickly became evident that Clinton delegates were breaking for Obama in a big way. Clinton had announced earlier in the day that she was casting her super-delegate vote for her former rival, and there was a “If he’s good enough for Hillary…” vibe as the states announced. Michigan, where Obama wasn’t even on the primary ballot, voted 125-27 for the Illinois senator.
Kathleen Weber, a delegate from Dubuque, Iowa, who started talking up Obama as a presidential candidate four years ago, was jumping up and down, saying, “I hope it’s over.”
And, in a few short minutes, it was.
New Jersey, a Clinton bastion, voted unanimously for Obama. Then, a wave of excitement swept through the Pepsi Center. Hillary Clinton was in the hall and making her way toward the New York delegation.
The delegation chair, veteran state legislator Sheldon Silver, called on “the great senator from New York.” And Clinton spoke the words that formally opened the next chapter in the history of the Democratic party and perhaps the nation.
“With eyes firmly fixed on the future, in the spirit of unity, with the goal of victory, with faith in our party and our country, let’s declare together in one voice right here right now, that Barack Obama is our candidate and he will be our president,” said Clinton, as the crowd roared.
“I move Senator Barack Obama of Illinois be selected by the convention by acclamation as the nominee of the Democratic Party.”
After the hall shook with applause and cheers, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the question. “Yes,” came the cry of the crowd. Pelosi briefly, very briefly, entertained the question of whether anyone wanted to say “no” and, while a few Clinton dead-enders might have liked to do so, Pelosi declared the nomination fight to be finished.
The crowd chanted, “Yes we can!” The old O’Jays song “Love Train” blared through the loudspeakers. Hugs. Kisses. High fives. Arms around shoulders. Euphoria. And, and… something that looked and felt an awful lot like unity.
Tim Sullivan, a tough labor stalwart from Wisconsin who went to seven states to campaign for Clinton and said he cried when Clinton released her delegates, may have put it best when he said, “I was for Hillary. Oh, I was for Hillary. But Barack Obama beat her. And when he won, when he beat the woman I backed with all my heart and soul, he proved to me that he was ready to be president.”
Sullivan cast his super-delegate vote for Obama.
Much will be made of the importance of speeches delivered Wednesday night by Bill Clinton and Joe Biden. Clinton and Biden are great speakers. And, surely, their remarks added to the historic character of the evening.
But nothing that Bill Clinton, or even Hillary Clinton, said; nothing that Michelle Obama said, or that Barack Obama says will make this convention historic — let alone transformational.
The history, and with it the transformation, was made mid-way through a roll-call vote at the convention of a party that has, after long and difficult struggle, proven the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to have been correct when he said, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The arc is still being bent. There is, still, so much work to be done.
But when the party that once deferred the dreams of millions of Americans determined on a Wednesday afternoon in the summer of 2008 to finally and formally nominate Barack Obama for president, it confirmed that the trajectory is, indeed, in the direction of justice.