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How the Democratic Convention
Constructs Meaning

Natalia J. Garland

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It is the second day of the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. Yesterday, Senator Ted Kennedy, who is now an elderly and ill man, gave the first major speech of the event. Early in the presidential campaigns, Senator Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy/Schlossberg (daughter of assassinated President John F. Kennedy), had already given their support to Senator Barack Obama for President of the United States. Caroline Kennedy wrote an article for the New York Times, endorsing Obama, entitled "A President Like My Father." She later became a member of Obama's vetting team on vice-presidential choice. How does this all add up?

The Democrats seem to be searching for meaning, principles, and party cohesion through this formula: John F. Kennedy plus Martin Luther King, Jr. equals Barack Obama. The aged Ted Kennedy, who has experienced personal problems (alcohol abuse, the Chappaquiddick accident and scandal) and family catastrophe (the assassinations of two brothers, John and Robert), seemed to want to pass on the Kennedy political torch to someone who mirrored his family's likeness: to a younger, nice-looking, ivy-league educated couple, Barack and Michelle Obama, along with their two cute and well-behaved young daughters.

The choice of Senator Joe Biden for vice-president almost seemed like a proxy for Ted Kennedy who lost a presidential campaign in 1980. It was as though the white-haired Ted Kennedy would have liked to become Obama's running mate--if only the elderly statesman had the same vigor as the white-haired Joe Biden. Both men, Kennedy and Biden, have served in the Senate for many, many years. Biden twice ran presidential campaigns and lost, in 1988 and then he recently lost the 2008 nomination to Obama. Is it a tangled web of thwarted ambitions and unfulfilled dreams? A revival of true political roots and American glamour? A lack of real courage and vision for a new future? A desperate need to feel secure, even falsely so, in a dangerous world? A personal quest for longevity and legacy?

Let's try to answer the last question. If Democrats want to restore a Kennedyesque White House, it signifies this: Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign was doomed from the moment Ted Kennedy gave his support to Obama. Using the language of the Obama campaign, our moment and our hope was not to nominate Obama as a man of his time, but to symbolically continue the Kennedy dynasty. This reconstruction of political meaning, through the re-establishment of an American royal family, seems to have congruence in the psyche of many Democrats. Even though it would appear paternalistic, very few seem outraged--perhaps because the new royal family would be black, a civil-rights accomplishment for which the Democrats would be able to take credit.

No woman need apply: for president or vice-president. Senator Clinton was born the wrong sex to become the Democratic nominee of 2008. She is not male. She is not young. Her daughter is an independent adult. And her marriage cannot even produce an appealing photo-op. Yet, with the exception of her views on the Iraq War, her political policies are nearly identical to Obama's. Senator Clinton, Senator Obama, and Senator Kennedy are among the most hardcore liberals currently in power. Senator Clinton, however, did not fit into the 1960's Kennedyesque comfort-level of the 2008 Democratic Party. Clinton carried with her the possibility of reconstructing the 1980's Clintonian era of her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Apparently, no woman is welcomed into this Kennedyesque reconstruction unless she wants to become first lady. Last night, after Ted Kennedy gave his speech, Michelle Obama gave her speech. It is said that her speech was intended to humanize Senator Obama who is perceived by some to be a political elitist. However, others suspect that the speech was intended to humanize or soften Mrs. Obama herself. She has been outspoken and controversial in her past public speeches. But, is the purpose of Mrs. Obama's new, softened image to reach a wider range of average Americans, or to reconstruct her persona to resemble Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy? Then, the Obama's Kennedyesque family portrait would be complete.

Although Senator Clinton may have lost to sexism and to her Party's preferred political era, she is nonetheless freed to live her life as authentically as she is capable. Mrs. Obama, however, if she becomes first lady, might find herself trapped in an artificial role as pre-packaged by Ted Kennedy and the Democratic delegates who will soon nominate Barack Obama. Again, using the language of the Obama campaign, it remains to be seen if Mrs. Obama will change the role of first lady, or if the anticipated role has already changed her.

[NOTE: This essay is based on personal observation, reaction, and opinion. This essay is therefore subject to error. The author does not accuse any person or any organization of sexism or any form of manipulation. The author recognizes that other variables have also affected the Democratic nomination process and outcome.] (Written 08/26/08)

[ADDED NOTE: Yesterday was the final day of the Democratic National Convention. That day marked the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech, "I Have a Dream." That day of the convention was held at an outdoor stadium, reminiscent of John F. Kennedy's acceptance of his nomination in 1960. That day appears to support my political formula: John F. Kennedy plus Martin Luther King, Jr. equals Barack Obama.] (Written 08/29/08)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2008 Natalia J. Garland