Barack the Vote: Obama’s Audacious Acceptance Speech

By: Garrett M. Graff

All week, the question among convention-goers had been: Will it work? Was the plan to host the final night of the Democratic convention in Mile High Stadium too audacious even for the candidate who defines audaciousness? No candidate had given an acceptance speech in a stadium since John F. Kennedy in 1960. Thursday night was pregnant with meaning, anticipation, and nervousness.

Doors opened for the stadium—also known as Invesco Field—at 1 PM, and while lines were relatively short for convention-goers with credentials, the more than 50,000 members of the public who attended the speech waited in lines up to half a mile long. An indication of the security pervading the night came at the metal detectors, which were staffed by officers from agencies as diverse as Secret Service, suburban-Denver police, the Colorado Department of Corrections, and the Transportation Security Administration. Helicopters circled overhead, and countersniper teams were visible on every stadium rooftop.

The only major problem with the night’s program was that there were hours and hours to fill with only a few key speakers, all in anticipation for Obama’s arrival and speech at 8 PM local time. Shortly after 3, the first band took the stage, followed by a random-seeming assortment of Congress members, governors, and grassroots supporters punctuated by performances by Sheryl Crow, Stevie Wonder, and a joint performance by John Legend and Will.i.am of the iconic pro-Obama song “Yes We Can,” which defined the race back in February. The program stretched long enough in the hot Colorado sun that, in the row in front of me, one woman did needlepoint, a man read a poll briefing, and another worked away on his laptop. Lines for food, beer, and especially pricey bottled water—this was a stadium, after all—were long, although there was never a Dippin’ Dots line.

By the beginning of the serious program, around 6, the stadium was filling up. Its normal capacity runs around 70,000, but with the extra seating on the field, some 90,000 people were in place as night fell. Campaign volunteers handed out small US flags as speakers touted the need for change—a theme emphasized by the only campaign signs handed out during the evening. A lucky few were handed giant American flags to wave.

Democratic hero Al Gore, who cracked wry jokes about the need for everyone to vote, brought the crowd to its feet for the first time when he took the stage. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, the wunderkind who defeated the Clinton machine, spoke about the need to organize and volunteer; throughout the stadium hallways were phone banks and voter registration tables. A plan to get everyone to make telephone calls on behalf of Obama was nixed after fears that it would crash the cell network, but even a halfhearted text-messaging sign-up effort during the event netted some 30,000 cell-phone numbers, the campaign reported.

There were few surprises through the evening—rumors of Bruce Springsteen never materialized, although Joe Biden did make a surprise stage appearance—but the arrival of Obama onstage in the darkening, crisp Colorado evening took on the air of half revival, half rock concert. After a intro by his Illinois counterpart, Senator Dick Durbin, a biographical video played to stadium as eerily silent as any 90,000-person crowd has ever been.

The candidate, displaying a new level of seriousness and sternness, walked the crowd through his campaign’s message and purpose, punctuated frequently by applause, cheers, and vigorous flag waving; the fact that an African-American candidate was accepting his party’s nomination on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech only added to the night’s weight of history. Flashbulbs erupted throughout the stadium as Obama took the stage, and they never ceased during the nearly hourlong performance. Unlike King’s speech, there were no single memorable lines or refrains in Obama’s remarks—his best, about America’s belief that “I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper,” was a throwback to the 2004 Democratic convention keynote, which launched then-Illinois state senator onto the national radar. The closing of his speech—complete with fireworks, streamers, and a cloud of confetti—was accompanied by a soundtrack that seemed as if it were from the end of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

The crowd’s applause carried with it a recognition that they had been a part of a moment that will be written about for decades. Modern American politics has never seen a sight like last night’s Obama rally, but it’s also never seen a candidate quite like Barack Obama. Whether the gamble of Invesco Field had the national impact he needed it to have is something that only the coming days will tell, and how it played for the all-important television audience was impossible to say in the heat and energy of the moment inside Invesco Field. Then again, the rally’s attendance last night was 200 times the margin of victory in the 2000 presidential race, and those 30,000 new cell-phone supporters—many of whom came from the swing state of Colorado—might provide all the margin Obama needs come November.

Only one thing’s for sure: John McCain has a tough act to follow next week in the Twin Cities.

Garrett Graff was in Denver all week, reporting from the Democratic National Convention. Head here to see his coverage of parties, people, politics and more.