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It Takes a Convention …

… to transform Hillary Clinton’s image in the 2016 election

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Here’s a piece of conventional wisdom that was going around Thursday: Hillary Clinton wasn’t going to give the best speech at her own convention. Well, so what? That happens all the time. Barack Obama out-orated John Kerry in 2004, and Bill Clinton’s speech four years ago was far better than Obama’s. Supporting players have an advantage: They can pick an angle and cut loose. The nominee has to muster all the themes of the convention, stroke every constituency, and try like hell not to accidentally offend anyone. The word “workmanlike” was invented for the nominee’s speech.

That was the vibe of Clinton’s speech Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia — workmanlike. Except the word genders an extraordinary moment in American history, and assumes that Clinton was trying to break the arena ceiling in any way other than metaphorically. She wasn’t. She wanted to give that kind of speech. One that reminded voters of her competence and occasional gift of acid humor. (“A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”) She is convinced she deserves the job and wanted to give a speech that sounded like she’s convinced.

And, anyway, the conventional wisdom assumed the unforgettable moment of the 2016 convention would belong to Obama, Joe Biden, or even Michelle. It didn’t and won’t. It belonged to Khizr Khan.

Khan was introduced by, of all people, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “I’m Michael Jordan and I’m here with Hillary,” he said. “I said that because I know that Donald Trump couldn’t tell the difference.” It was Kareem’s best (maybe only) joke since Airplane!

In 2004, we learned, an American Muslim soldier named Humayun S.M. Khan, who had immigrated to the U.S. from the United Arab Emirates as a child, was stationed in Baqubah, Iraq. He saw a suspicious vehicle near his compound. He told his comrades to stay back while he investigated. The car exploded, and Khan died. His comrades were spared.

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Getty Images

After a short video detailing Khan’s story, his father, Khizr, appeared onstage. To his right stood his wife, Ghazala. If Khizr Khan had not uttered a word, the moment would have had unbelievable power. Here was a rebuke to Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim immigration ban specifically and his nativist bilge generally. A Muslim man who had immigrated to the United States died trying to protect its values. Trump has bludgeoned us so thoroughly with this point of view that we needed shock paddles — to borrow an image the Reverend William Barber offered Thursday night — to remember how grotesque the Republican candidate has become.

A “U-S-A!” chant started in the crowd but fizzled. Khan had too much gravity, too much grace. He addressed Trump slowly and emphatically. “Have you even read the United States Constitution?” he asked, to loud cheers. You thought he might end there. Then Khan reached into his coat pocket and pulled out what looked like an incriminating document. “I will gladly lend you my copy,” he said.

To Trump, who carefully avoided military service, Khan said, “You have sacrificed nothing!” He walked off the stage. The room — and I assume the TV audience — was shattered.

Since it’s easy to forget how historic Clinton’s nomination was, know this: By 5:30 that afternoon — a full five hours before she would appear onstage — nearly every upper-deck seat at the Wells Fargo Center was filled. Democratic activists were trying to score spots in the press section. For people in the building, this was a big night.

Chelsea Clinton spoke before her mother. Her speech wasn’t a master class in oratory but came off well because it was so natural, so unpolitical. After a week of Democrats reading Clinton’s résumé, Chelsea finally tried to describe what she was like as a person. Clinton loved to FaceTime with her grandkids. (Parents with eager mothers and mothers-in-law nodded in approval.) When Chelsea was young and Hillary would go off on a do-gooding mission, she’d leave notes with dates on them so that Chelsea could open one a day and know she was thinking about her.

After Chelsea’s speech, there was a Clinton biographical video narrated by Morgan Freeman — the last of the phalanx of celebrities at the DNC. The names stretched from Katy Perry to David Schwimmer. On Wednesday, I walked into a makeshift press conference of Bernie-ites in the media center and saw Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover, and Shailene Woodley. The DNC had better celebrities at its protests than the RNC had on its stage.

Back in Brooklyn in June, Clinton’s primary valedictory speech featured a lot of smiles, the elation of a battle won. Here, she was all business. The Democratic Convention took place while polls, however illusory, showed Trump in the lead. It was as if Clinton carried all the weight on her shoulders.

She started slow, name-checking Sanders and quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt. Then she got rolling. She lashed out at Trump’s “me” obsession. “Americans don’t say, ‘I alone can fix it.’ We say, ‘We’ll fix it together.’”

People wondered if Clinton would concede error, admit she wasn’t particularly well-liked. The closest she got was saying, “I get it that some people just don’t know what to make of me.” She then dug into her biography, pointing out she wasn’t born to a father whose name was on a building. (More blue-collar appeal: Hugh Rodham played football at Penn State.) Clinton sounded at ease when she was brandishing economic populism. “Some of you are frustrated,” she said. “Even furious. And you know what? You’re right.” It was her way of conceding the anger of the country before arguing that she was the one to relieve it.

Clinton took a neat dig at the Republican Congress, the unindicted coconspirators of America’s misery: “I believe that our economy isn’t working the way it should because our democracy isn’t working the way it should.” A refrain of, “If you believe [insert popular issue] … join us,” seemed like an olive branch to lefty undecideds.

For someone dinged as a corporatist by the Bernie holdouts, Clinton sounded an awful lot like a liberal. She made appeals for climate change legislation, immigration reform, gun control. “I’m not here to repeal the Second Amendment,” she said. “I’m not here to take away your guns. I just don’t want you to be shot by someone who shouldn’t have a gun in the first place.”

Like Tim Kaine, Clinton was most at ease — and most likable — when talking about Trump. The line about baiting him on Twitter got a huge reaction, as did her deadpan reply to Trump’s boast of knowing more about ISIS than military generals. “No, Donald, you don’t,” Clinton said.

But the line that stuck with me was her clever quotation of Jackie Kennedy. It both touched on her time as first lady and suggested that she might know something Trump, or any man, did not. During the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy said her husband, President John F. Kennedy, worried “that a war might be started not by big men with self-control and restraint, but by little men — the ones moved by fear and pride.”

The words “little” and “men” hung there. Hillary Clinton said she was a competent alternative — it’s what she likes about herself and what she wants you to like about her.

There was talk around these two conventions that the streets would be thick with ’60s-style activism. It turned out to be a bum prediction, but only for the location. In 2016, the protesters weren’t outside but inside the arenas. They took the form of Ted Cruz in Cleveland and the Bernie Sanders irregulars in Philadelphia.

On Thursday, the Bernie-ites arrived in day-glo green T-shirts. There was a rumor the shirts would make them easy to see when they staged a walkout. They never did. Instead, they stayed and chanted when retired Marine General John Allen promised to obliterate ISIS. They reached a new level of annoyance when Clinton took the stage. They were considered such a threat that Democratic operatives passed out counter-chant guidebooks. When the protesters chant “Ban fracking now,” the guides advised, you counter with “Hill-a-ry!”

A lot of Democrats and sympathetic journalists disliked the interruptions. (Note the schadenfreude on Twitter from Marco Rubio, who didn’t even bother to show at his own convention.) Anyway, I disagree. The sound of a raucous arena during a convention was like stepping into a time machine and arriving at the moment before Richard Nixon met Roger Ailes. The 2016 conventions revealed discord rather than smothered it. They offered us a vision of the messy business of patriotism rather than the slickness of TV production. Consensus is overrated. These conventions were a joy to experience.