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Obama is cast as an everyman

His wife portrays him as a symbol of America's promise; a Senate lion calls him a leader for a new era.

August 26, 2008|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — Turning the personal into the political, Democrats opened their presidential nominating convention Monday with testimonials to Barack Obama as a husband, father, brother and, above all, a leader able to transcend the nation's long divide across racial and gender lines.

It was a parade of the past and future, with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts -- ailing in the twilight of his 46-year career -- vouching for Obama, who dawned on the national scene at the Democrats' convention four years ago.

Playing the role of chief character witness was Obama's wife, Michelle, who cast herself and her husband as symbols of America's potential and its promise.

"I come here as a wife who loves my husband and believes he will be an extraordinary president," Michelle Obama said, though she never mentioned his effort to break the ultimate racial barrier by winning the White House.

For all of the upbeat talk, tensions continued to stir between supporters of the Illinois senator and Hillary Rodham Clinton, threatening the unity that Democrats desperately seek as they face a rugged fight against Republican John McCain.

None of that friction was visible, however, during the official program beamed worldwide from the star-spangled inside of Denver's Pepsi Center sports arena. The agenda was clear and two-pronged: Build an image of Obama as an everyman and start ripping McCain apart.

The getting-to-know-you phase featured several branches of Obama's family tree, including his brother-in-law, his sister and several longtime friends and associates from his adopted home state of Illinois.

The advocate in chief was Michelle Obama, whose own ascension to the national political stage -- and sometimes tart commentary -- has not always been smooth, or helpful to her husband.

Reaching for the transcendence of her husband's 2004 address at the party's last national gathering -- and his disavowal of a red-and-blue America -- she declared: "Barack doesn't care where you're from, or what your background is, or what party, if any, you belong to. That's not how he sees the world. He knows that thread that connects us -- our belief in America's promise, our commitment to our children's future -- is strong enough to hold us together as one nation even when we disagree."

Much of her 20-minute speech was simple and plain-spoken, delivered in a crisp tone. To those who would question her patriotism, as some have, Obama offered a long and passionate paean to America's possibility, ending with the affirmation: "That is why I love this country."

Michelle Obama is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, now on leave from her job as an executive at one of Chicago's largest medical centers. Still, she stressed her blue-collar upbringing on the city's Southside and her concerns for her daughters' futures.

She described meeting her husband and discovering that, despite his "funny name," they shared the same values, in his case instilled by the single mother and grandparents who raised him: "That you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you're going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, and even if you don't agree with them."

She also reached out to Clinton's supporters, even before she praised her husband's running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, saying the votes cast for New York's senator "put those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling so that our daughters -- and sons -- can dream a little bigger and aim a little higher." The crowd roared its approval.

The emotional high point of the evening was a surprise appearance by Kennedy, 76, who is battling brain cancer. He walked gingerly across the stage flashing his thumbs up to delegates, who leaped to their feet in an exuberant ovation.

When he spoke, his voice was strong. Looking out on a sea of blue-and-white "Kennedy" signs, the snowy-haired senator summoned memories of his brother, the late President John F. Kennedy, and the man-on-the-moon challenge he laid down for his countrymen.

Kennedy urged Americans to "rise to our best ideals" in November and offered Obama as the embodiment of that aspiration. "Barack Obama will close the book on the old politics of race and gender, of group against group, of straight against gay," Kennedy said.

Delaware Sen. Biden was among those rising to their feet in tribute. Kennedy's niece, California First Lady Maria Shriver, looked on with tears in her eyes.

But it was not all high tone and uplifting oratory.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was among those who took up a cudgel against McCain, criticizing the Arizona senator's positions on issues including the economy, healthcare and energy policy.

"Republicans say John McCain has experience," Pelosi told the crowd. "We say John McCain has the experience of being wrong!" She led delegates in a call and response: "Barack Obama is right," Pelosi said, and the faithful responded, "John McCain is wrong!"

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