The only things missing from the opening night of the Democratic National Convention on Monday were Beyoncé, the Rolling Stones and Barack Obama – and the former POTUS is coming later this week.
Other than an audio glitch at the beginning of kingmaker Rep James Clyburn’s stint in front of the camera from his home state of South Carolina, the first of four nights of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ official bid for the White House was just over two-hours of fast paced television that may just seal the deal.
Cutting to the chase, this wasn’t your grandmother’s Democratic Convention or even a redux of the mistaken confidence of 2016. Hosted with a strong hand by Eva Longoria and full of punchy short segments and speeches from the biggest names in the party and the world of entertainment and sports, the beginning of the Bidenathon was a polished political ad that successfully masqueraded as an event.
From the jump, this was a remix of The West Wing’s aspirational tenets, America’s Got Talent and the superstar-packed multi-network One World: Together at Home concert from early in the COVID-19 chaos. With a mix of partially live and pre-recorded programming, the multi-cultural architecture of the first installment sought to reach beyond the usual policy wonks to Americans looking for a new show to binge.
Which is another way of saying, based on Night 1 alone, longtime Tony Awards kingpin Ricky Kirshner would be a lock on another Emmy if they handed out Emmys for producing political conventions. Far away literally and figuratively from the traditional balloon-dropping convention that was originally set in Milwaukee, Night 1 was about setting the virtual stage and seeking to hold the casual viewer/voter’s interest until November.
With a constant chorus decrying Donald Trump’s corruption and incompetence in this era of racial divide, the fatal coronavirus crisis and the consequential economic collapse, the Biden team put its focus-grouped playbook into practice tonight .As the race already tightens with the ex-Celebrity Apprentice host, the narrative of the ex-Vice-President was built up to heavyweight status.
Former rivals like his running mate Harris and the Nero name-dropping Bernie Sanders, old friends, a rousing Bruce Springsteen song (and a nanosecond cameo by the Boss himself), and carefully chosen regular folks all lined up behind the candidate – which doesn’t come naturally to Democrats:
— The Democrats (@TheDemocrats) August 18, 2020
Over an evening that had a story to tell loud-ish and proud, the crescendo was a scathing star turn by Michelle Obama. She tore into Trump with a calm voice promising again that “going high” is the route to victory at the ballot box. The former First Lady also made it clear in her pre-recorded speech that she is an immense political and cultural force in a “deeply divided” nation – as her spouse exclaimed:
As Michelle said, we’ve got to do everything we can to elect @JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris. So make sure you have a plan to vote. Vote early. And tell everybody you know to register to vote at https://t.co/XdZz4dh82T. https://t.co/rAUsWHusbV
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 18, 2020
The emcee of Night 3, which will feature former President Obama and presumptive VP nominee Sen. Harris among speakers, also offered up some of the applause that cascaded across social media on Monday:
— kerry washington (@kerrywashington) August 18, 2020
Message: “We are the cavalry,” to quote Beto O’Rourke in tonight’s episode of America’s Got Biden.
The second hour of Night 1, by mere fact of featuring the star speakers, had much less of a telethon feel than the first hour. It will be interesting to see if CNN and MSNBC carry less of the pool and DNC feed on the Tracee Ellis Ross-hosted Tuesday night.
If there was one noticeable out-of-tune note tonight, it was from Biden himself. In a moment seemingly directed to Trump’s hardcore base, who will never vote for him anyway, the ex-Veep took a stance on police brutality and systemic racism that many of his own supporters and a number of Americans have abandoned in recent months.
Taking on the mantle of talk-show host as well as POTUS-in-waiting, the poll-leading Biden spoke via video with activist Jamira Burley, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Houston police chief Art Acevedo, NAACP president Derrick Johnson and author Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner. “Most cops are good, but the fact is the bad ones have to be identified, prosecuted and out, period,” Biden proclaimed in a roundtable on social justice. The compromise statement seemed to put a damper on the conversation as it pushed Black Lives Matter to the background when the foreground was its rightful place tonight in this year of protest and pandemic.
In this unprecedented year of election, CNN, MSNBC and the always dependable C-Span went live, as it were, to the convention right at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PST. Unsurprisingly, not so much on Fox News Channel.
Split-screen with Longoria delivering the opening remarks of the We the People-themed convention, FNC’s Sean Hannity wasted no time framing his own message for Donald Trump.
The good pal of the incumbent started by calling the gathering a “boring” hit on Trump “launched from Biden’s basement bunker.” By the time the convention’s Pledge of Allegiance was over, a chorus of voices across the land had finished singing, the invocation was given and the slick but not too slickly produced Bidenathon was back to longtime activist Longoria, Hannity showed his true colors and dropped the split screen entirely. The substitute was an echo chamber of ranting with the likes of Karl Rove and Donald Trump Jr. Fact is, with the exception of showing an appearance by George Floyd’s family at a later point, Hannity basically deserted the convention for more pedestrian partisan bashing.
Otherwise, everyone else stayed with the convention from pretty much beginning to end. In fact, CNN’s verbose Wolf Blitzer was the first to interrupt the flow, coming on to finally push the WarnerMedia-owned outlet to an ad block just before the broadcast networks came on board at 10 p.m. ET.
And something must have been working, because even master of distraction Trump himself couldn’t land a decent punch online as the nationwide shindig was being broadcast on cable and the networks. Retweeting wide swings at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others who spoke tonight, Trump’s only original contribution was to go after Pentagon bureaucrats:
A proposal by Pentagon officials to slash Military Healthcare by $2.2 billion dollars has been firmly and totally rejected by me. We will do nothing to hurt our great Military professionals & heroes as long as I am your President. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 18, 2020
On the other hand, Trump even took a pummeling at the Democrats’ convention from formerly friendly fists.
“Let me tell you, Donald Trump hasn’t a clue how to run a business, let alone an economy,” Quibi CEO Meg Whitman said as ABC, CBS and NBC jumped onto their one hour of convention coverage at 10 ET. “Joe Biden on the other hand, has a plan that will strengthen our economy for working people and small business owners,” the longtime Republican and former GOP candidate for the California governorship added. “For me, the choice is simple, I’m with Joe.”
Along with former New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman (no relation), Susan Molinari, and former Ohio governor and 2016 candidate John Kasich, Whitman was one of several mid-profile members of the party of Lincoln to throw their weight behind Biden. Having attracted a lot of coverage when the lineup was first unveiled, the 1990s throwback renegade Republicans probably won’t provide the mass aisle-crossing the Biden campaign envisions.
That aspect of the awkwardness of the convention’s first hour probably had more to do with the fact that so much of the political class is used to the traditional in-the-arena gathering. Truthfully, the mix of videos and testimonials isn’t all that different from some of the content that would play in noisy convention halls in between speakers.
But, context counts as much as content nowadays and in that context, the content was supercharged.
Still, the broadcast nets were a bit more judicious than CNN and MSNBC in what they carried. ABC, CBS and NBC seemed more time pressed to try to sandwich their own pundits and correspondents between the convention pool feed. CBS, for instance, skipped a series of speeches from other 2020 contenders, and instead went to a segment on the latest electoral polls, something that could be done at any other time of the day.
After Kasich spoke, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos went to two of the network’s analysts on opposite ends of the spectrum, both of whom bashed the former Ohio governor. “He’s exhausting,” says Chris Christie, a Trump supporter and former New Jersey governo. “We don’t want him either,” said progressive Yvette Simpson.
Conversely, the Democrats did get some good marks for the way they used their deep-seated advantage in Hollywood support. Stuart Stevens, senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012, wrote on Twitter tonight, “I was in an RNC convention and Ted Nugent came up. There was a painful pause and a young woman said, ‘Can we get someone who has been on the cover of Rolling Stone more than Guns & Ammo?”
Well, the Queen Bey and Stones didn’t show up and almost everyone had cut away after Michelle Obama’s speech. Still. Stephen Stills and Pose’s Billy Porter did close out the first night of this unconventional convention with a new take on a classic tune – just like you do in the big award-show leagues.