In a speech to some die-hards last month, Hillary Clinton justified a big convention role for herself as a means to achieving "catharsis." This was, strictly speaking, preposterous. It was awfully hard to imagine her doing anything at the Pepsi Center that would excite feelings of intense pity and terror, thereby purging the audience of those emotions, which is what catharsis has meant since the Greeks dreamed it up. The misuse of the term was minor, but, given the circumstances, revealing of character: isn't it just like a Clinton to appropriate a term associated with the cosmic tragedy of Oedipus Rex for an event that would be one part self-empowerment exercise, two parts pep rally?
When the big moment arrived Tuesday night, there was no pity generated by Clinton's hotly anticipated speech, except maybe for the sad irredentists still holding out against her rousing call for party unity, and no terror, except among Republicans. There was, instead, a bracing mix of loyalty and self-regard, a catalyzing speech to make the party cohere. Clinton could have done more to praise Barack Obama or to knock John McCain. But in what the speech tried to achieve and in how well it achieved it, her address was about as excellent as Hillary is capable of delivering.
Clinton's poise behind the podium might have surprised you if you tuned out before the end of her long primary fight. By the time she gave her nonconcession speech on the night Obama clinched the delegates needed for nomination—you remember, the one in which she said she would "be making no decisions tonight" even though she'd been mathematically eliminated from the race—she was smooth and direct, without the chilly voice and stiff mannerisms that once plagued her. Last night's Harriet Tubmanesque call, "Keep going!" had a passion that might have eluded her a year ago. Though we've spent plenty of time wondering how the long primary fight toughened up Obama, it's at least as rewarding to consider what it did for Clinton.
In cajoling her supporters to line up behind Obama—essentially saying, at one point, that the fate of the world depends on it—Clinton did what the party required. (She also did what she required, kicking off her speech with what is unquestionably the best video of the 2012 campaign to date.) But the speech also supplied some qualities this dreary convention has lacked. Most obviously, she took it to McCain. She wasn't the first to try, Lord knows. All night, speaker after speaker had intoned that America "can't afford four more years" of Bush's policies. Oh, Democrats. Like so many messages (and messengers) past, their refrain was technically correct, but inadequate. It captures the urgency of the trouble we're in about as completely as a polite request to the gentleman who's just parked his SUV on your foot: if he wouldn't mind, when he gets the chance—if he's finished his coffee—would he move slightly?
A few speakers mustered more vivid attacks, like Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who compared the much-housed McCain to Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz" ("There's no place like home. And a home. And home. And home) and Sen. Robert Casey, who pointed out that McCain has voted with President Bush 90 percent of the time: "That's not a maverick. That's a sidekick." Trouble is, Sebelius and Casey are, or seem to be, very nice. They delivered what should have been biting attacks with the edge of a well-brought-up child saying H-E-double-hockey-sticks. Contrast this with Hillary, who didn't need to be cute, or even especially clever, when she declared: "No way, no how, no McCain."
Hillary's other top-shelf line, about how fitting it is that McCain and Bush would soon be together in the Twin Cities, was even more welcome, because this convention has been dying for somebody—anybody—to bring the funny. It's not a frivolous demand. Four years ago, the Republican convention got an incalculable boost from the shiv-with-a-smile appearances of Giuliani, Romney and Schwarzenegger. Their attacks on John Kerry weren't just good for a laugh, they made the politicians who delivered them seem like actual human beings. The speakers at this year's convention, by and large, continue to fall short of that standard. Poised, competent, earnest, looking forward not back, handy with a teleprompter, representing (but not being limited by) a racial or geographical or union affiliation, they seem, beneath their outward differences, more and more the same, like members of a particularly well-cast Broadway kickline.
This is why the highlight of last night's undercard didn't come from the official keynote speaker, Mark Warner, whose smart, careful and finely crafted address was like all of this week's speeches, only more so, thus explaining why I've already forgotten it. It came from Brian Schweitzer, the rollicking, fidgety, string-tied governor of Montana, who looked like Randy Quaid and sounded only like himself. He bad-mouthed "petrodictators." He offered a double-dip taunt of McCain, saying we couldn't drill our way out of oil dependency even if we drilled "in all of John McCain's backyards, even the ones he doesn't know he has" (a line he punctuated with a happy, unself-conscious "Woo hoo!") And he shouted out the troops, demanding that everybody in the room "Get off your hind end! In the cheap seats, stand up!" and yell for Obama loud enough that they'd be heard in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thanks to him and to Hillary, the Democrats finally looked, for a little while anyway, like a party in two senses of the word.