“The Man From Hope,” the 17-minute film that presented Bill Clinton to the Democratic National Convention, was big news in 1992. Produced by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason, the couple behind the hit TV series “Designing Women,” the short became the subject of innumerable long articles in major publications.
This year, the filmmakers behind the highest-grossing movies of all time also directed videos featured at the DNC. J.J. Abrams assembled the two-minute preamble to Michelle Obama’s speech, James Cameron contributed a 5-minute piece on the urgency of fighting climate change. Both left the media unrippled: Frankly, there was just too much competition.
Broadway luminaries filled the Wells Fargo Center’s stage for a rendition of “What the World Needs Now,” addressed to victims of gun violence, and the grace with which more than three dozen singers shared two microphones felt like socialism in action. Dozens more turned up in “Our Fight Song,” a version of Rachel Platten’s hit produced by Elizabeth Banks, which the DNC evidently liked enough to deploy on multiple nights. Funny or Die — co-owned by Adam McKay, who used his Oscar speech for “The Big Short” to rail against the influence of billionaires in politics — chipped in with a string of “Donald Decoded” videos, which proved there are circumstances under which economist Austan Goolsbee can get bigger laughs than Ken Jeong.
While the DNC was crammed with so many stars that it sometimes resembled an awards show more than a political convention, the Republican National Convention had to make do with low-wattage celebrities like Scott Baio and Antonio Sabato, Jr. In the absence of more compelling options, that left Trump to follow his instinct to hold the spotlight by any means necessary.
“Good news is Melania’s speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics especially if you believe that all press is good press!” he tweeted after his wife’s RNC speech was found to have been plagiarized. And if more press meant suggesting that Russia just might want to go ahead and track down Clinton’s missing emails, that was what he’d do. (For the record, Trump now says he was being “sarcastic.”)
For those who like drama, the RNC made for good TV with its apocalyptic speeches and surprise non-endorsements. The DNC was low on conflict, despite fears that diehard Bernie Sanders supporters would cast a pall over Clinton’s nomination. Until Sanders spoke Monday night, there seemed to be real danger of the convention dissolving into chaos. Since Trump explicitly modeled his own acceptance after Richard Nixon’s 1968 speech, that would have been worrisomely close to history repeating itself. (The ’68 DNC, unlike this one, actually was rigged.)
From the opening gavel to the final balloon drop, DNC stagecraft outshone the RNC at nearly every turn. And the Democrats scored higher ratings every night, which must have driven Trump — who tweeted out a video purporting to show the percentage of his time on stage consumed by applause — absolutely batty.
Even many of the Republican Party’s stars skipped their own convention. There were no past presidents or vice presidents, and only one nominee. The Democrats, by contrast, even rounded up unaffiliated speakers like Michael Bloomberg, who stressed that he wasn’t appearing on behalf of any political party but nonetheless laid waste to Trump’s claims of wealth and success — one ultra-rich New Yorker taking down another.
The DNC had so many speakers, and ran through them so quickly, that it wasn’t always clear why they were there. Was the appeal to first-time voters more powerful because it was delivered by self-proclaimed millennial Chloe Grace Moretz? What were Lena Dunham and America Ferrara doing there, exactly? Oh, right.
“We know you’re all thinking: Why should you care what some television celebrity has to say about politics?” Ferrara said. “And we feel the same way, but he is the Republican nominee, so we need to talk about it.”
Jack Black and Don Cheadle talked about global warming, but the best performances came from political pros. Michelle Obama found evidence of America’s promise in the fact that the country’s first black First Family lives in a White House that was built by slaves. Bill Clinton humanized his wife, as spousal speeches always do, but also laid out the substance of her career in elegant detail.
And Barack Obama took the terms of strength and weakness Trump evoked in his acceptance speech and turned them upside-down. Giving in to fear, he argued, was weak, and even un-American; hope requires strength. On Twitter, old-guard Republicans gnashed their teeth at Democrats laying claim to the rhetoric that had once been theirs: the shining city on a hill; the land of endless promise; a country that is already great, but must be greater still. When National Review’s Rich Lowry complained that the Democrats were “trying to take all our stuff,” several people shot back, “You weren’t using it.”
For all the speechmaking prowess on display, some the DNC’s most powerful moments came from nonprofessionals like Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim-American soldier killed while serving in Iraq in 2004. He held up a copy of the Constitution, with its promises of liberty and equal protection, and spoke directly to Trump: “Have you even read the US Constitution? I will lend you my copy.” With his damning accusation that Trump has “sacrificed nothing and no one,” Khan joined the chorus charging that Trump, far from making America great again, was fundamentally undermining what makes America great.
It’s long been clear that, as an outsider running an anti-establishment campaign fueled by white male resentment, Trump couldn’t ask for a more perfect adversary than Clinton. But on Thursday, it became clear the reverse is also true. All week, veteran politicians spoke not just of service but of sacrifice: Bill Clinton, feeling the nation’s pain; Barack Obama, weeping with the bereaved parents of Sandy Hook.
Finally, Hillary Clinton’s arrival on stage was preceded by her own version of “The Man From Hope,” this one produced by Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers. Unlike Bill in 1992, Hillary is a well-known national figure — almost too familiar for a campaign that wants to cast her in a new light. But Rhimes and Beers caught us off guard from the beginning, with Obama talking not about her fitness for office but her “wonderful, infectious laugh.” We saw Clinton as a young girl, as a law student, and when Bill entered the picture, it was in the background, off to the side and just a hair out of focus, in that penumbra where so many political wives have lived.
Morgan Freeman’s narration strummed the usual chords, but it also veered upward. “The Man From Hope” was meant to look rough-hewn, the better to ward off the stink of Hollywood interference, but Clinton’s was almost poetic at times, as Freeman talked about how “Hillary’s heart beats Chelsea’s dreams,” or asked “How many ways will she light up the world?” Clinton’s speech was absent such high-flown imagery, but by the time she was on stage, she didn’t need it. The sight of her on stage in suffragette white, the first woman ever to be a major party’s nominee for president, was poetry enough.