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Democratic convention: the enduring power of TV and one person talking from the heart to a camera | COMMENTARY

In this image from video, Jill Biden is joined by her husband, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, after speaking during the second night of the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday.
In this image from video, Jill Biden is joined by her husband, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, after speaking during the second night of the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday. (AP)

The virtual Democratic National Convention has been a very pleasant surprise so far. Given how staged and non-engaging some telecasts of conventions held in real auditoriums packed with delegates have been in recent years, I wondered if this year’s online convention held in the midst of a pandemic would even be watchable.

But 15 minutes into Monday’s opening night production, I started thinking this might not be such a grind to watch after all. By the time former first lady Michelle Obama got rolling in her keynote address near the end of the telecast, I was a believer, reminded of television’s ability to adapt to new technology and the enduring power of one human voice speaking passionately from the heart to a camera.

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Tuesday night during a roll call of the 57 states and territories, I started thinking this virtual convention might even be an improvement in some ways over recent conventions. The roll call, which had often seemed in previous years tune-out tedious, was suddenly brought to life with cameras taking us to each state and territory where representatives from all walks of life announced the votes. In being visually transported to the states and territories, viewers were reminded of the great beauty and diversity of the nation ― something easy to forget in this time of COVID lockdown. It sure beat delegates in silly hats sounding air horns.

The only other virtual telecast in this year of the pandemic that engaged me as deeply as those from the convention Monday and Tuesday was “Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020,” which featured basketball superstar LeBron James and former President Barack Obama. I saw some of the “America Honors” template on display Monday night in the Democrats’ production.

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Both used technology to create a stirring opening performance by a virtual choir of young persons from across the nation. Both choirs sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And for all the technology used to bring those diverse voices from around the country together on one screen, it was the voice of one person talking directly to the camera that elevated the productions to a higher plane.

Monday, it was Ms. Obama delivering a blistering critique of President Trump and his performance in office, saying he lacks the experience and empathy to lead at such a troubled moment.

All 18-plus minutes of her speech were riveting. But the words that stuck with me were delivered in the form of a warning or prophesy.

“If you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this,” she said. “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can and they will if we don’t make a change in this election. If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”

New technology has nothing to do with the power of those words. They could have been delivered in the 1950s on early TV, or on radio by Eleanor or Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. Heck, they could have been sounded in ancient Greece or Rome by political leaders urging fellow citizens to a course of action desperately needed to save the democracy or republic. That’s how rich and resonant Ms. Obama’s words were.

Tuesday, the voices that lifted the telecast higher included New York Times security guard Jacquelyn Brittany, former President Bill Clinton, musician John Legend and Jill Biden, wife of the candidate. Mr. Legend closed the show with a moving rendition of the anthem-like “Never Break.”

Ms. Biden, a community college professor with a Ph.D. in education, spoke from an empty classroom. It was a wise choice of staging that instantly connected her visually to the question keeping millions of parents up at night: Should they send their children back into the classroom or keep them at home for online learning where they can be safe? The question remains after more than five months because of our government’s inability to rein in COVID-19.

Ms. Biden referenced the empty classroom at the opening and closing of her speech. It was powerful stuff. But even more powerful was the memory she shared of her husband right after the death of their son, Beau. Ms. Biden told viewers how she watched her grief-stricken husband get ready for work four days after his son’s funeral. She described him putting on his suit, looking into the mirror and steeling himself to go back into the world for his family and country.

The quiet moment was all about character and a sense of responsibility at a time of great personal pain. It seemed in sync with that empty classroom. I wonder if it would have played nearly as well in a raucous convention hall full of delegates.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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