Until Michelle Obama delivered a perfect, 14-minute speech on the first night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, I did not think that I could feel feelings about politics anymore - other than frustration, cynicism, and discouragement. But her ode to her husband's presidency, her family, and their vision of America reignited some dormant political energy in me.
I had heard some of what she spoke about in her commencement speech at the Santa Fe Indian School, which is an all Native American high school in New Mexico. That's where I first heard the line that stood out on Monday in Philadelphia, like a comet tracing the path from the unjust shackles of the past to her daughters' own promise:
That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.
And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.
On the heels of all the anger, pessimism, and unmasked narcissism of the Trump convention the week prior, Michelle's speech - and many who have followed this week - was remarkable in its bright vision amid the darker realities of our country. It was striking both for what it said, and what it didn't say. It was one story - hers - that articulated everything about a land of opportunity and an election of generational importance.
And she did it all without ever uttering the Donald's name.
The ensuing days of speeches - from Bill and Biden and, oh my, Barack - have furthered this feeling of political optimism. Which is strange, considering my own latent cynicism about political leaders and the long list of recent tragic events and seemingly intractable challenges we face.
Even so, the speeches and the issues they've focused on have been illuminating in a way I did not entirely expect. From sarcasm to serious to somber, they've laid out the choice we have in November as not just between parties, but between the very notion of a constitutional democracy and inept authoritarianism. They've made the prospect of Trump's candidacy look both big in its danger to us, and small in its pathetic narcissism. And in a bit of speechwriting savagery, the president called Trump out for what he really is:
They've presented Hillary Clinton (who's endured the widest range of reasons that people don't like her, often unrooted from reality) in a way that slices through the cynical public perception of her, that highlights the remarkable life of public service she's led, and that features her relentlessness to make things better. The president said it best:
She knows that sometimes during those 40 years she's made mistakes, just like I have, just like we all do. That's what happens when we try. That's what happens when you're the kind of citizen Teddy Roosevelt once described, not the timid souls who criticize from the sidelines, but someone "who is actually in the arena, who strives valiantly, who errs, but who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement."
Hillary Clinton is that woman in the arena. She's been there for us, even if we haven't always noticed.
And if you're serious about our democracy, you can't afford to stay home just because she might not align with you on every issue. You've got to get in the arena with her, because democracy isn't a spectator sport.
President Obama also laid out the necessity of nuance even in the face of certainty, the capacity we have to hold two conflicting thoughts in our heads, the importance of the gray areas of our politics and policies, and that - as cliche it can sound - there is more that unites us than divides us, more right in us than wrong with us:
And that’s what Hillary Clinton understands. She knows that this is a big, diverse country, and that most issues are rarely black and white. That even when you’re 100 percent right, getting things done requires compromise. That democracy doesn’t work if we constantly demonize each other. She knows that for progress to happen, we have to listen to each other, see ourselves in each other, fight for our principles but also fight to find common ground, no matter how elusive that may seem.
Hillary knows we can work through racial divides in this country when we realize the worry black parents feel when their son leaves the house isn’t so different than what a brave cop’s family feels when he puts on the blue and goes to work; that we can honor police and treat every community fairly. She knows that acknowledging problems that have festered for decades isn’t making race relations worse – it’s creating the possibility for people of good will to join and make things better.
Hillary knows we can insist on a lawful and orderly immigration system while still seeing striving students and their toiling parents as loving families, not criminals or rapists; families that came here for the same reasons our forebears came – to work, and study, and make a better life, in a place where we can talk and worship and love as we please. She knows their dream is quintessentially American, and the American Dream is something no wall will ever contain.
Those three paragraphs are about Hillary's understanding of the world, and they're about so much more. The DNC has been impressive in how the scope of its message has gone beyond her - it's been about all of us, and our role not just in politics, but in democracy. It's been a call not just for a campaign, but for a cause - that we don't just have to succumb to our challenges, that we're all in this together, that we all have a stake, and that we all can have a voice and a role in making our lives, our communities, and our country a better place.
Last week, I was doing a lot of virtual booing, behind my laptop.
This week, I want to get in the arena.
Like the president said last night, "Don't boo. Vote."