Presidential nominating conventions are runways for politicos to show off their stories and styles. Occasionally, there are breakthrough speeches that launch political careers or send them to new heights.
Ronald Reagan went from revered actor to governor of California and serious presidential timber with his speech to the GOP National Convention in 1964. Barack Obama emerged from the relative obscurity of an Illinois state senator in 2004 to become a U.S. senator and a serious presidential contender in 2008.
Michelle Obama may have scored a breakthrough moment Monday at this year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Some commentators rank her remarks as among the best convention speeches in decades. While Hillary Clinton’s nomination broke through the penultimate glass ceiling in America, Michelle Obama’s speech broke through to reach the hearts of millions of Americans.
Poynter broke down the First Lady’s speech and credited its strong appeal to Obama’s use of the first person, touching anecdotes and a narrative built around “kids.” These qualities gave her speech universality and made it much more than a stump speech in support of Hillary Clinton.
“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said. “And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
Obama set the tone in her first paragraph: "You know, it's hard to believe that it has been eight years since I first came to this convention to talk with you about why I thought my husband should be President. Remember how I told you about his character and conviction, his decency and his grace — the traits that we've seen every day that he's served our country in the White House."
She kept her central narrative personal. "I also told you about our daughters — how they are the heart of our hearts, the center of our world. And during our time in the White House, we've had the joy of watching them grow from bubbly little girls into poised young women — a journey that started soon after we arrived in Washington, when they set off for their first day at their new school."
And about the first morning the Obamas were in the White House, she recalled, “I will never forget that winter morning as I watch our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns."
"I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns."
Perhaps her most memorable line was, “Our motto is, when they go low, we go high” and the most touching anecdote was about the young black boy who wondered whether President Obama’s hair felt like his, prompting the President to bend over and let him find out for himself.
Apart from the technical skill, beautiful writing and polished delivery, Michelle Obama’s speech transported listeners far beyond the current political battlefield into what it means to lead a nation and the stakes of presidential decision-making.
"What I admire most about Hillary is that she never buckles under pressure. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life. And when I think about the kind of President that I want for my girls and all our children, that's what I want. I want someone with the proven strength to persevere."
Whether Michelle Obama elects to pursue a political career of her own after the Obamas leave the White House, her speech turned fertile groundwork. She will be known for planting a vegetable garden, pushing for school lunch nutrition and supporting the families of military veterans, but perhaps she will be best known for the speech she gave on a platform in Philadelphia in 2016 that wrapped up to its conclusion with:
"So don't let anyone ever tell you that this country isn't great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this, right now, is the greatest country on earth."