A star is born

When a speaker speaks at a podium at the Democratic convention, and there are no cameras around to capture him, has he made any sound?

That was the question that I asked myself at about 9:05 Tuesday night, when I finished watching the first hour of CNN's coverage of the convention. I couldn't help but notice that, for most of the previous 30 minutes, I had been watching pundits and talking heads, and not actual Democratic speakers.

That seemed a bit odd to me. So I went to public television, Channel Thirteen, which I had been recording while I was watching CNN, and played back the last half hour - and what do you know! Both former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle spoke, and, if you had watched CNN, you pretty much wouldn't have known, and you certainly wouldn't have heard the speech.

Were they the greatest speeches ever?

No. But Gephardt was earnest and his speech was a kind of a valediction after his long and distinguished service. Daschle had some nice energy going when he talked about taking back the Senate. And, you know, they are senior Democratic officials. You would think that would count for something for CNN, which is ostensibly in the news coverage business.

But CNN is a business, and that means that they have certain commitments to ratings, and that means they have to make different calculations about what viewers who aren't delegates find interesting.

But these are, of course, viewers who are interested in news, by definition, and at a time when news media has become saturated with the modes and means of entertainment, the attention gets focused on the people whose paths can be easily fit into patterns we care most about: the patterns of entertainment.

Take, for example, Ron Reagan. Now, there was nothing wrong with his speech on embryonic stem cell research, although in describing its wonders he sounded a bit like one of those jaunty '50s training films that are used to such nice effect in, say, some episodes of "South Park" or in "DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story."

And Howard Dean, who gave a mellow, not to say tranquil, speech - wasn't it that scene we've all seen before, where the bitter enemy, gracious in defeat, turns his allegiance over to the hero of the story?

And Teddy Kennedy, with his long term perspective, his historical references, the sense he gave that he had been waiting a long time for this moment - a convention in Boston - and the revealing of the partisan fire that still burned brightly despite decades in service - it was "The Lion in Winter" all over again.

But the movie all the Democrats hoped would be playing Tuesday night, as all the political junkies know, was "A Star Is Born," which is the story of all Hollywood stories.

It's what the people in the dream factories dream of, and its versions are legion: constant efforts by managers behind the scenes to present a succession of ingenues as the next big thing. Most of them, though, just end up being people with a brilliant future behind them, as the saying goes. (Gretchen Mol and Julia Ormond come to mind; in fact, as I'm writing this, Jon Stewart and Bill Richardson are talking about US Senate candidate Barack Obama as a new star in exactly these terms on "The Daily Show.")

But there's the standard, run-of-the-mill movie version, and then there's the real thing.

Sure, Obama's speech had some of the same themes and touches of your classic set piece "political speech". There was the personal biography, describing a rise up from adversity. There was the call for unity. There was the reference to foundational documents of American history and to recent successes of political rhetoric: to the hope which figured so prominently in Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, and to the belief which Martin Luther King cited again and again in his most important "I have a dream" speech.

But hearing Obama tell it, you realize how the greats - in movies and in politics - take the same sentiments, and they make it new. They make you feel like you're hearing it and watching it for the first time. They get you excited.

You watch the same pratfalls or professions of love or lone heroes facing down villains or yes, giving a political speech, and while you've seen it countless times before, you're still enraptured, intensely engaged, watching the screen, remembering that these are actually ideas, not clichés.

And that's the kind of thing that if you pull it off, you get your shot at becoming immortal.

There were some good speeches tonight. But only his transcended 'good" to "great." Only one that broke out of both the silence created by the absence of television coverage and the bonds of the stories created by television pundits.

Barack Obama, I think, may not just be the latest example of "A Star is Born", the next Evan Bayh or Jennifer Granholm or Chris Heinz or whoever the parties are going to anoint as fresh faces and new stars. Barack Obama isn't anything but Barack Obama, sui generis, and that is far, far more than enough.

The broadcast networks chose to take tonight off. Which is too bad. They missed the national debut of what could be one of the most exciting and important voices in American politics in the next half century.

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