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The first night of the DNC was a discordant mess with the crowd chanting, booing, and crying like they took the wrong kind of acid at a Sufjan Stevens concert. Almost regardless of a speaker’s overriding message, they were interrupted by raucous cries for Bernie Sanders, many of which were likely started by actual grown men wearing Robin Hood hats. It seemed the dissonance was a force beyond repair. That is, until Michelle Obama took the stage.
Despite the senator's urging to the contrary, Sanders supporters have become more attached to the man than his message, and yet, he seems to lack any significant sway among the more stubborn ranks of his base. Consider the fact that Sanders barely had enough control over the crowd last night to get them to stop yelling so that he could speak. It’s moments like those when the attempt to corral the #BernieOrBust crowd seems impossible. There is somehow a contingent that ardently supports everything Sanders stands for, yet is willing to consider an alternative to a Democrat in the White House. The idea that one could campaign for Sanders and then switch to backing Donald Trump should be unconscionable. It’s the political equivalent of strongly preferring McDonald’s to Burger King, and then committing arson when you can't get your hands on some chicken fries.
The idea that one could campaign for Sanders and then switch to backing Donald Trump should be unconscionable.
Many DNC speakers worked toward unity by praising Sanders' work during the primaries. “He woke us up in so many ways,” said noted Sanders-supporter comedian Sarah Silverman, before making a bid for Clinton as “overqualified” for the job of President. When Silverman, too, was met with mounting cries for Bernie, she screwed up her face a little and dropped the gracious passing of the baton for some much-needed real-talk. “To the Bernie-or-Bust people,” she announced, “You’re being ridiculous.”
There was noticeable upset, too, when New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker held the mic to talk vaguely yet enthusiastically about tolerance. Even actress Eva Longoria’s simplistically powerful call to not elect a bigot seemed to land on deaf ears. When Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren took the stage, a man could be heard chanting, “We trusted you.” No mix of platitudes, scolding of dissenters, or even praising Sanders’ impact seemed to satisfy the crowd, because they were missing the heartfelt passion and practical call to action we saw from Michelle Obama.
Obama is a masterful public speaker for two key reasons. First, she is consistently genuine. Even when saying something outwardly sappy, about, say, breaking the glass ceiling, she means the words she says with such force that the impact is tenfold what it might be in the hands of a lesser speaker. Second is that combination of subtle, often personal moments with clear-cut calls to action. Politicians often opt for one method or the other, building a message by talking about their father's work, or they'll stack the deck with inspiring sayings masquerading as galvanization. But it's Obama’s careful combination of the two that make her speeches some of the most iconic in American political history.
Consider the public act of deconstruction we witnessed last week, when Melania Trump recited many lines from Obama's 2008 convention speech. Before the claims of plagiarism surfaced, Trump was hailed for her powerful words, yet she still lacked the fine details that took Obama's delivery to the next level. While Trump kept the ambitious bits about hard work, she missed Obama's sprinkling of small yet character-establishing moments, like the time Barack drove her and then-newborn Malia home from the hospital, “inching along at a snail's pace, peering anxiously at us in the rearview mirror, feeling the whole weight of her future in his hands.” Those gorgeous details function as proof that she means what she says.
Last night, Obama made an impassioned plea for continued progress by calling out the historic nature of this election and juxtaposing our all-too-recent past with the horrifically un-progressive possibilities of a Trump presidency. And she did it all without even once mentioning the name of the person “[telling] you that this country isn't great.”
"I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said, “And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn." Her juxtaposition in that statement is masterfully executed. It’s at once tragic and hopeful, angry and optimistic, ultimately building to an emotional but practical plea that this country was built on racism, and we cannot afford to move backwards.
“I want a president with a record of public service,” she continued, simultaneously praising Clinton and dismantling Trump. “Someone whose life’s work shows our children that we don't chase fame and fortune for ourselves; we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed.” And then, using the same ninja-level undercutting with which she disemboweled Trump’s platform, Obama took aim at the impracticality of Bernie-or-bust protesters.
"In this election, we cannot sit back and hope that everything works out for the best,” she said. “We cannot afford to be tired, or frustrated, or cynical." Again, the implication was clear: She was urging the unruliest audience members to set down their grudges and support Clinton, but she managed to do so without the air of concern trolling we saw during other points of the night.
In this election, we cannot sit back and hope that everything works out for the best.
The power of Michelle Obama is that she is not a prop or even merely an asset, but an American icon who is tapped into the needs of this country with every fiber of her being. Her skill and passion as a speaker is a secret weapon for fighting for what she believes in, and not one that can be wielded by any political hopeful. That's what brought the crowd to their feet last night, to tear-up and cheer in unity: the collective feeling that Obama didn't have any other agenda than working to make America a better place. She wasn't trying a rhetorical trick to quiet untamed Sanders supporters—she was working to show the entire crowd what the best possible future could look like.
The earnest forcefulness of her motive is precisely why Obama’s speech will be remembered for decades to come, and why she was even better at getting disgruntled Bernie bros to shut up than Sanders himself.