By Tom Robotham
On July 25, as the Democratic National Convention was getting underway, news broke that an armed man in the Larchmont section of Norfolk had barricaded himself inside his house after police came to question him on suspicion of vandalism. In a display of admirable leadership, Norfolk’s new mayor, Kenny Alexander, having learned that there were no hostages, told the city manager to order police to avoid a SWAT-type response, if at all possible.
A day later, as the standoff dragged on, someone from the area griped on Facebook that Norfolk was “coddling criminals” and that the whole incident was causing great inconvenience to the neighborhood. Several people commented in agreement. “Please,” the author of the original post wrote, “lob some kind of shell or projectile into the house and end this fiasco.”
Thanks to a friend of mine who recognized the man’s name, local news outlets soon learned that the man was suffering from serious mental illness. No matter. To some of the neighbors he was just another “criminal” who was disrupting their daily routine. Fortunately, the police managed to get him out alive.
I bring this up in the context of the convention because I think the mentality expressed in the Facebook post is a reflection in microcosm of our current national dilemma.
On the one hand, we have the rise of Donald Trump, whose popularity depends entirely on his ability to stir anger in the hearts of his supporters by dehumanizing various individuals and groups. Thus Trump has claimed or implied that most Mexicans coming into this country are rapists and murders; women are either objects of desire (including his own daughter—if only they weren’t related), or disgusting pigs who bleed “from [their], wherever”; making fun of a person’s disability is fair game if he crosses you; Ted Cruz’s father was somehow involved in the Kennedy assassination, and President Obama wasn’t really born in this country. Moreover, when he’s not bragging about the size of his penis, he’s calling for a restoration of “law and order”—code, in this case, for “black people need to behave themselves.” (It worked well for Nixon, after all.)
This is a man whose popularity rests largely on his starring role in a “reality” television show, best known for his gleeful utterances of “You’re fired”—as if firing people is a joyful pastime. And yet, for all his bravado, he is remarkably thin-skinned, as bullies tend to be. During the primaries, he showed zero tolerance for protestors at his campaign stops and encouraged the crowd to use violence against them if necessary. More recently, after speakers at the DNC voiced scathing criticism of all this, his response was that he wanted to punch them.
Watching all of this, I’ve been reminded of what lawyer Joseph Welch said to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954: “”Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness….You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”
PRIOR TO THE START of the Democratic Convention I feared that a sense of decency was lacking in that camp, too. The release of DNC emails, after all, revealed a depth of cynicism and contempt for the democratic process on the part of the committee’s leadership.
Long before that, I’d taken issue with Hillary Clinton for a number of reasons. I did not buy into the Republican talking point that she was “crooked.” For my tastes, however, she is far too fond of military intervention, and far too indebted to Wall Street. Moreover, she lacks public charisma, which is no superficial thing. I’ve long believed that one of the most important jobs a president has is to rally the nation behind noble causes. That was FDR’s greatest achievement, as my father once told me—he kept hope alive. Thus, whether the widespread perception that she’s untrustworthy is deserved or not, it is a problem.
In light of all this, I feared that the Democratic Convention would be a train wreck. It was, instead, the best political convention I have seen in my lifetime.
Generally, the best we can hope for at these things is one great speech. I’m thinking, for example, of Mario Cuomo’s address in 1984—certainly one of the greatest speeches in American history—and Barack Obama’s in 2004, which made it clear to the nation that he represented the future of the party. During the course of this one we were offered more great speeches than I can count, starting with Cory Booker’s. After that came Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Mothers of the Movement, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Tim Kaine, President Obama, Khizr Kahn, the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, and General John Allen, just to name a few. There were many others.
The scathing criticism of Trump added fire to event. But in the end it was secondary to the overriding theme: We must stand together in unity and love. Even the Mothers of the Movement, who had lost sons to racist-driven gun violence, spoke of forgiveness and hope rather than retribution—though the latter sentiment would have been entirely understandable.
In her nomination acceptance speech, Clinton stayed focused on this theme. The biographical video preceding it told the story of a woman who has dedicated her life to public service. I began to get a sense that she does indeed have charisma when she’s talking one on one or with small groups. The testimonies to her character, moreover, were far too passionately expressed to have been mere political calculations—Bill’s, perhaps, aside. I’ve long had the feeling, ever since I read the book Primary Colors, that the Clintons started out as idealists and were subsequently corrupted by the quest for ever-increasing power. They are not unique in this. Lyndon Johnson, for example, built his early career on corruption, and yet he did some great things for the nation. I say that not to excuse corruption, but merely to put it in perspective.
Politics, in short, is a messy business. In the long run, we must strive as a nation to clean it up as best we can. In the short term, we must work with what we’ve got.
What we have here before us are two major candidates for president of the United States. (Yes, I realize there are a couple of third-party candidates, but they’re not even close to getting the kind of support that Ross Perot once did, and even he couldn’t pull it off.)
ONE CANDIDATE has demonstrated time and again that he is despicable—a man who has pledged a willingness to turn his back on our allies, pit Americans against each other, and resolve differences either by suing people or threatening to punch them in the face. In the process, he has not only damaged the fabric of our nation but has come close to destroying his own party. Indeed, the Democrats even managed to add to the stellar convention lineup Republicans who pledged to switch sides this time around.
The other candidate, for all her faults, isn’t simply a candidate. She is now the leader of a party—one that has been rejuvenated, at long last, with a progressive platform and widespread support from Americans of all races, ethnicities, religions and classes.
Bernie Sanders, whom I vigorously supported, remains an integral and influential part of this movement. You can be sure that the party platform would not be nearly as progressive as it is, were it not for him. The grace he showed in temporary defeat—with an eye toward the longer-term project of making the party truly progressive once again—is a testament to his character and leadership. Moreover, he proved that a candidate without a super PAC can make a legitimate run for the presidency. I know many people in their 20s who will never forget this, and it is my hope that some of them will eventually run for office themselves. At the very least, it’s encouraging that Bernie Sanders helped shape and crystallize their political sensibilities as they came of age.
In the meantime, we’re in the here and now. I was going to close by saying, “I’m with her.” But that would not be quite accurate. What I want to say is that I’m with them— for it is not just about her. It is also about Tim Kaine, one of the finest people ever to run for office. But it’s not just about the ticket, either. It’s about rising Democrats like Cory Booker; it’s about the Mothers of the Movement, Khizr Kahn, and William Barber. It is about the millions of Americans who need help and compassion rather than contemptuous dismissal for the “inconveniences” they cause. It is about civil rights and human rights—and it is, above all, about an overriding question: What kind of people do we want to be, and, by extension, what kind of nation do we want to become? Do we want to dwell in bitterness and hatred of the “other”? Or do we want to move toward a spirit of cooperation and empathy? The spirit at the very heart of our founding ideals, though it has yet to be fully realized.
To my mind, the answer is clear—and so is the correct choice come Election Day. As Clinton said, it will be a moment of reckoning. So much hangs in the balance. But for the first time in a while, I have faith that a vast majority of Americans will make the right decision.