Frank Bruni: Michelle Obama showed us why these Democrats are our last best hope

(Democratic National Convention via AP) In this image from video, former first lady Michelle Obama speaks during the first night of the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020.

I think I’m supposed to question whether the Democratic Party can really stretch far enough in opposite directions to accommodate a democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders and an estranged Republican like John Kasich, transcendently strange bedfellows who spoke and served as ideological poles on the opening night of whatever we’re calling this shrunken, not-in-Milwaukee, pandemic-warped political jubilee.

I should probably describe that warping, review the attendant adjustments and find fault here, there and everywhere, because that’s what we pundits do. We quibble. We naysay. We’re insufferable that way.

But this isn’t a time for business as usual. It isn’t a usual time. I’m not referring to the coronavirus per se, to the history-making selection of a Black woman as the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nominee or to any one facet, any one dynamic of the days before us. I’m referring to the stakes of the days ahead. They’re immeasurable.

Never in my 55 years has the Democrats’ success mattered more for the welfare, the sanity — the future — of these United States than now, because never has the other fork in the road been a Republican president as profoundly amoral, fundamentally corrupt and flatly incompetent as the one seeking four more years.

Donald Trump has made clear that he’s willing to steal this election from Joe Biden if that’s the only way to “win.” He has in fact commenced that heist. He’s ready to smash all faith in our institutions and all pride in our democratic system and fashion a throne amid the wreckage. And he has a shockingly large number of accomplices — including, to date, most of the Republicans in Congress — who are cheering him on or biting their tongues to the point of hemorrhage.

In the context of that, what I saw on Monday night wasn’t something to be parsed or graded. It was something to rush toward and relish: a buffet for the starving. It was salvation. I have zero interest in decreeing whether the mashed potatoes were suitably fluffy or the asparagus overcooked.

Instead I want to note that nowhere in Trump’s inner circle is there anyone with the gravitas and grace of Michelle Obama, because someone like her wouldn’t last a nanosecond there. Trump would find the example of her too threatening, the yardstick of her too diminishing. She’d find his ethical ecosystem uninhabitable: the cold, dark surface of the moon without a spacesuit.

I want to savor her every word on Monday night, when she so beautifully distilled what’s wrong with Trump — “He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us,” she said — and so hauntingly defined what it feels like to live in Trump’s America.

“Kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another,” she said. “They’re looking around wondering if we’ve been lying to them this whole time about who we really are and what we truly value.”

“What’s going on this country is just not right,” she added. “This is not who we want to be.” It was an excellent speech, gorgeously delivered, and that’s in large part because she recognized and maximized the fact that many Americans see her as someone less partisan and more practical than the conventional convention orator.

“You know I hate politics,” she said, making no apologies for that. “But you also know that I care about this nation. You know how much I care about all of our children.” From that perspective came this plea: “We have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”

That was the message of many of the speakers. Their words varied; their urgency didn’t. Usually when politicians adopt such epic, dire tones, I want to reach for some bleach to wash the purple from their prose. On Monday night I just nodded (and, in Obama’s case, got a little teary, too).

There was much talk beforehand about the Democrats’ ardent desire and assiduous efforts to project unity. To my eyes and ears they took things to a higher level than that, not because they have such a talent for diplomacy or such a gift for television choreography but because they obviously and genuinely and passionately share the conviction that if Biden fails, America falls — at least the America that we’re all still trying to hold on to, the America that we sing about in songs and speak of when we put our hands over our hearts and turn toward the flag.

“During this president’s term, the unthinkable has become normal,” Sanders said during his remarks. “The future of our democracy is at stake. The future of our economy is as stake. The future of our planet is as stake.”

He specifically and pointedly instructed his frustrated supporters to get with the program and vote for Biden. “We must come together,” he said. “My friends, the price of failure is just too great to imagine.” He didn’t sound quite like this in 2016. Back then the damage from a Trump presidency was merely predicted, theoretical. Now it’s on the unemployment lines and in the morgue.

This convention isn’t without its ideological tussles, bruised egos and other offscreen drama. But anyone who’s focused on that has lost the big picture. Anyone who’s focused on that can’t recognize how many of the compliments bestowed on Biden on Monday night could never be given to Trump.

I’m talking about simple compliments, like when Kasich praised Biden as “a man of faith, a unifier.” Or when Rep. James Clyburn deemed him “as good a man as he is a leader.” Not even the practiced liars who prop up Trump try to get away with calling him “good.” They’re reprobates, not comedians.

Biden doesn’t have everything I wish for in a president, but he has goodness, and for a country that needs to reclaim its decency, re-establish its dignity and right its course, that’s not a bad place to start.

The Democrats’ show will go on for three more nights, but I don’t need to watch another second to know what’s what.

Frank Bruni (CREDIT: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.