It was not the acceptance of the Democratic nomination, but the coronation of an emperor.
To a fanatical crowd of some 85,000, to the twinkling of tens of thousands of camera flashes, the young senator – handsome, almost haughty – did not merely accept his party’s nomination, he ascended to the throne. We’re used to grand rhetoric from Barack Obama, and we knew tonight’s speech would be – would have to be – one of his finest. But this one was seismic.
It started off humbly, even awkwardly. The parallelism between “ownership society” and “on your own,” was clumsily written and Obama labored to deliver it effectively. It would have been unacceptable for him to issue vague calls for change, riffing off his novelty as a candidate, as he did earlier in his campaign for president. He needed to be specific about his plans for America, answer the charges leveled at him by the McCain camp, take a few shots of their own, and do it all with the virtuosic rhetoric we’ve come to expect. After all, we didn’t tune in to hear fluff, but neither did we tune in to hear a dry policy lecture.
Yet Obama’s specifics weren’t, in the end, all that specific. He can offer up a laundry list of hopes and dreams – tax cuts for 95% of the working class, energy independence in 10 years, providing electricity to the nation with magical unicorns on treadmills – but these do not qualify as policy proposals. As to paying for everything on his wish list, he vows to set the budget straight with ruthless accounting and penny-pinching. Ah. What a novel approach.
But no matter. This wasn’t about winning minds, but hearts. And win he did. Even cold-eyed independents who roll their eyes at rhetorical flourish found themselves verklempt at times.
Every pharaoh or emperor who were told they were a god on earth was raised from birth to believe it. At 47 years old, belief in one’s own divinity comes a little harder – but an audience of 85,000 chanting supplicants, crowds gathered in the streets of New York and Chicago and San Francisco, probably helps.
I was reminded of a story often told about our first president. At the close of the Revolutionary War, as the triumphant George Washington appeared before our newly-born Congress, the nation wondered whether he would ascend to the role of emperor. After all, it had virtually been offered to him by an awestruck nation. Instead, Washington invoked the ghost of Cincinnatus, resigned his commission, and returned humbly to his farm.
Some warned the Invesco Field stunt would make Obama seem triumphalist and full of hubris. They were right, of course. But it worked anyway. As the fireworks began and the cameras pulled back from the stadium, I wondered, what have we done? Have we just elected this man – brilliant, to be sure, but still a man – president or emperor?