No Need to be Ordinary in an Extraordinary Country

The Democratic convention opened in Charlotte, NC yesterday with tales about “ordinary” Americans, and the message I took away from their stories was that nobody has to be ordinary in this extraordinary country. There’s nothing ordinary about a young black woman with a disabled father getting a Harvard education by hook and by crook – and with a helping hand along the way – then marrying the son of a Kenyan immigrant and an idealistic white woman from Kansas, and then becoming First lady of America.

But the way Michelle Obama told her life story, it could happen to you… or you… or you. It could happen to you regardless of your skin color, regardless of your ethnic background, regardless of your parents’ occupation.

That was the message I got from the other speakers, too. In America, you, too, can be  a star.

There was Julian Castro and his twin, Joaquin, both so debonair and charming, both college graduates, both rising stars in the Democratic Party. So what if their Mexican grandmother was a maid?  They were as American as apple pie. And as urbane as anyone.

Brimming with self confidence, Julian delivered a keynote address as stirring and persuasive as any I have ever heard. It was right up there with Barack Obama’s famous “one America” speech to the 2004 convention.

And what about Deval Patrick, the oh-so-eloquent – black – governor of Massachusetts? What a powerful speaker he is!

He was not the only silver-tongued orator at the event.

And I am not just talking about the career politicians. I was amazed at the way in which disabled veteran Tammy Duckworth performed her gig, for example.  And Lilly Ledbetter, who got a law named after her. And Elaine Brye, the military mom who wrote the president to thank him for all he’s done for her four kids, all in uniform, with  a  fifth heading that way. There she was, on stage before a crowd of thousands, introducing the First lady, and doing it with charm and aplomb.

Perhaps the most poignant of all was Stacy Lihn’s story. That brave mother managed to maintain her composure as she told of her little girl’s heart defect and the lifesaving impact of Obamacare’s abolition of lifetime limits on her health insurance benefits. She didn’t cry. But I did.

There was more to the convention’s first day, of course. There was a heartwarming tribute to the Lion of the Senate, for example. How we miss you, Teddy! How we wish you were here! But your legacy lives on, your dream endures.

It’s people like Ted Kennedy who have made America extraordinary, people who – in the First Lady’s words – measure success not by the amount of money they could accumulate but by the difference they make in the lives of others.

Why would anyone want to undo the work of those people? Why would anyone want to reinforce the power of a privileged – and selfish – elite? Why would anyone want to deny opportunity to the Castros and Ledbetters and Patricks and Obamas in America’s future?

Why would anyone want to make America less extraordinary?

Yet, the way I see it, that’s just what the Republicans promised even as they brayed so loudly about “American Exceptionalism.”

The message I got from the remarkable convention underway in Charlotte is that it isn’t the world’s mightiest fighting force or a fabulously wealthy ruling class that makes this country exceptional. It’s a society in which anyone can become a star – or at least achieve a rewarding middle-class life – if they have the ambition, the perseverance and – sometimes – a helping hand along the way.

Pictures above show the Obamas (left) and the Castro twins.