Almost Done: The Democrats Lead Up to One More Big Moment 

DENVER -- Wednesday's lengthy floor session, the penultimate one of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, might be remembered by those relatively few individuals who experienced all of it -- mainly delegates and other direct participants -- as a fairly complete grab bag of styles, performances, and obligations. A larger audience may recall mainly the Dramatis Personae.

Exhibit Number One: Former president Bill Clinton voiced the unstinting praise of Barack Obama that was required of him (and that Hillary Clinton's gracious apostrophes to her conqueror on the night before had prefigured). And in laying it on equally thick for Obama's veep choice, Joe Biden, Clinton was in effect making two concessions at once -- it being widely known that he had lobbied hard to get wife Hillary that consolation prize.

"His first choice [of Biden] was a home run": A perfect grace note -- and one that was preparation for the genuine entente both Clintons seemed determined to have with Obama and Biden. In its own way, it was like the handsome -- and seemingly genuine -- tribute extended by George H.W. Bush to the man who had beat him in 1992 on the occasion of the opening of the Clinton Library in Little Rock almost four years ago.

What that seems to mean is that, for the Clintons, as was certainly the case for the senior president Bush in late 2004, the period of denial is over. They were bested by Obama on the merits, and will stay bested in all records and interpretations of the primary competition for eons to come.

In exchange for this largely unspoken acknowledgement, the former president had a formal certificate of greatness conferred on him by the convention. The prolonged applause that greeted his appearance at the dais -- one ninth wave after another -- was the largest appreciation given anybody in Denver, and it brought the former president to unabashed tears. A fair trade, from Clinton's point of view.

Exhibit Number Two: Hillary Clinton had not qualified for this sort of canonization, but a last bit of sleight of hand on Wednesday, added to the honorifics of Tuesday night, gave her -- and her oft-cited 18 million voters -- a final huge measure of face-saving.

Whether acting independently or by some carefully concealed and directed consensus, the delegates pledged to Clinton staged a mock rebellion of sorts on Wednesday, threatening -- in delegation after delegation in the states whose primaries she had won -- to impose their will when the roll call came and assert their majority status.

In Tennessee, the Hillary people's show of defiance took the form of ad hoc caucuses -- one held just after the delegation's daily breakfast meeting in the Marriott Tech Center hotel, another in early afternoon, only a scant hour or so before a 3 p.m. deadline for feeding each state's vote totals into a computer bank. (That was the reality behind the staged-for-TV roll call and tabulation re-enacted on the convention floor.)

The first vote tally of Tennessee's Clintonians had a majority of them insisting on casting every vote to which Hillary, as the winner of the state primary, was entitled. Only in the later session -- after formal intercession from higher-ups in the Clinton campaign organization -- was the "defiance," if such it actually was, stilled. Whether sham or real, the situation had the ranking members of the Tennessee delegation concerned enough to involve themselves in some frantic arm-twisting.

In the end, Hillary and the convention managers reached an accord whereby each of the states in turn would answer the roll call with an agreed-upon minority share of votes for Clinton. When the vote tally reached New York, Hillary herself moved that the convention nominate Barack Obama by acclamation, after which she betook herself to a highly visible position in an arena balcony box, where, like some would-be queen devolved into an honored duchess, she sat like royalty for the duration of proceedings.

Exhibit Number Three: A variety of lesser players had their moments, though some of these, notably the parade of discarded vice-presidential prospects -- Messrs. Bayh, Reed, et al. -- all reciting brief, platitudinous and pre-scripted speeches, came off well short of glorious. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada was another ill-heeded flop, as his House counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, had been on Tuesday.

(Ironically, one of the unexpected hits of the convention on Tuesday had been Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio congressman and lightly regarded former presidential contender, who roused the delegates with a fire-eating speech, impressing the likes of Tennessee State Rep. John Hood of Rutherford County, a conservative-to-moderate legislator who was still enthusing over the arch-liberal Kucinich's performance a day later.)

Massachusetts senator John Kerry, the Democrats' ill-starred 2004 nominee, earned Best Supporting Actor status with an unwontedly impassioned performance in which he was able to excoriate Republican presidential nominee-to-be John McCain for a series of purported flip-flops that rivaled his own alleged ones from the campaign of four ears ago. "Talk abut being for something before being against it!" Kerry noted with evident relish about one of these, thereby exorcising one of the gaffes used against him in 2004.

Exhibit Number Four: And then there was Joe Biden, Obama's vice presidential pick, who -- for all his Beltway prowess and frequent-flyer hours logged on Sunday morning political talk shows -- had up until now hovered just beneath the threshold of the national consciousness.

Not any longer: Biden's Horatio Alger-like story of hard-won success against a background of personal tragedy got a goodly workout from several other convention speakers before the Delaware senator himself took the dais to recapitulate his story, from birth in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and a hard-times working-class upbringing to his long career as Senate mainstay and foreign-policy maven.

The keystone of Biden's saga was an automobile accident which had killed his first wife and his first-born daughter and seriously injured his two sons - all this happening just after his 1972 election to the Senate and before he had taken the oath of office. Others, including one of those sons, Beau, now the attorney general of Delaware, had described to the convention audience (and to the presumed millions of TV watchers elsewhere) the circumstances in such detail that Biden was able to restrict himself to a brief account of how he subsequently dedicated himself to the raising of his surviving sons and had to be persuaded to take his Senate seat. The new senator then began the practice, which continues today, of commuting between his day-job in Washington and his home in Wilmington.

Biden's persona, as well as his story, clearly resonated with his audience, and, when Obama himself made a surprise late appearance to embrace his running mate and to summon the extended families of both candidates onstage for an ensemble farewell, everything had been done that could be done to foreshadow the final act of this convention -- the Thursday night acceptance address by the prodigious Obama himself at Denver's Invesco Field.

A nation, a world, and -- not least in this series -- the GOP's John McCain will be watching closely.



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