DENVER—Sen. Ted Kennedy two days ago talked about passing the party's political torch to Barack Obama. But it was former President Bill Clinton's embrace tonight of the expected Democratic nominee—the political phenom who defeated Clinton's wife in the primaries—that was desperately needed to make that happen.
And when the party's original rock star uttered his first words, "I am honored to be here tonight to support Barack Obama," tumultuous applause and a palpable sense of relief, even catharsis, moved through the packed-to-the-rafters Pepsi Center.
For the first time this week, the ongoing Clinton drama seemed to recede. With that came the promise that the convention would finally belong to Obama, who less than 2 ½ hours earlier became the nation's first major party African-American presidential nominee. (Indeed, Obama made a surprise appearance at the end of the night, emerging from the wings to join his running mate, Joe Biden, on stage.)
Clinton, who infuriated many party members with comments during the campaign that some perceived as racist, was greeted like a returning hero. The delegate floor and stands were a sea of waving flags, and increasingly loud cheers ended only when, aware he was losing time from the scant 10 minutes the former two-term president was allotted, he quieted the crowd. "Sit down, we've got to get on with the show," he pleaded. (Clinton, not known for brevity, ended up busting his limit by 10-plus minutes.)
But Clinton's imperative tonight was two-fold: to convince nervous party leaders that the bitterness over his wife Hillary's primary loss to Obama had passed for at least long enough to help get Obama elected; and to help lash expected GOP nominee John McCain to the policies of President George Bush.
He appeared to accomplish the first, eloquently echoing the promise his wife made in her speech last night to do everything she can to elect Obama. "That makes two of us," he said, and, reaching out to Hillary's supporters, added: "Actually, that makes 18 million of us."
The man who once inspired many talked about Obama's "remarkable ability" to do so, too. And, attempting to undercut the most resonant GOP criticism of Obama, Clinton recalled that he, too, had once been considered too young and inexperienced to be president. "Barack Obama," Clinton said, "is ready to be President of the United States."
But Clinton failed to go after McCain in any direct way. He talked at length about what he views as the Republicans' dismantling of the Clinton legacy, but never mentioned McCain, Bush, or any Republican by name.
It may have been because of presidential courtesy, or affection for President George H.W. Bush that he didn't go hard. He left that to vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, who followed.
But the proud former president, who had been angered by the criticisms and shocked that his legacy would be marred by charges of racism—charges he found wildly unfair, did most of what he needed to do tonight. And for that, Democrats, including Barack Obama, were breathing a sigh of relief.