When Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention, he wowed the crowd with his world-class charisma, showstopper presence and ministerial oratory. But mostly he mesmerized with an all-American message that hit all the right notes in a nation divided by war, malnourished by cynicism and hungry for hope.
After long months of vicious partisanship, his call to unity was both inspired and inspiring. Especially appealing was his dismissal of the idea that we are a nation of hyphenated tribes - African-American, Asian-American, Latino-American - or red states and blue states, blacks and whites, conservatives and liberals.
"We are one people," he said, "all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."
It was a nice touch, if not quite true. We are a divided nation such that Barack Obama, whose name is as euphonious as his message, comes along at an epiphanic moment. Part black (his father was from Kenya), part white (his mother was from Kansas), part conservative ("people don't expect government to solve all their problems"), part liberal (supports affirmative action and abortion on demand), he is the deus ex machina in America's 21st-century political theater.
If, that is, he can pull off in practice what he suggests in speech.
What Obama suggested during the convention was a middle-of-the-road approach that sits well with the vast American middle. Fifty percent of Americans identified themselves as "moderate" in 2000.
On multiple levels, this Harvard-educated, married attorney and father of two is just the right blend, a storybook character who is neither too hot nor too cold, but just right, a quintessential offspring of the American cradle.
Republicans have cause to worry as Obama seeks a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. As if to prove all their own stereotypes true, they picked exactly the wrong man to counter Obama's candidacy - former U.N. ambassador and erstwhile presidential candidate Alan Keyes.
Hey, he's black, isn't he?! He went to Harvard, too, didn't he?! And he can out-talk Demosthenes on a caffeine-free day.
All true, which is the point. Republicans continuously struggle to demonstrate their party's inclusiveness, to build their multi-culti credentials and prove that blacks, Asians, Latinos and other minorities have a place at the table. President George W. Bush gave blacks two of the most important jobs in his administration - Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser and Gen. Colin Powell as secretary of state.
At the same time, Republicans can be embarrassingly tone-deaf and arrhythmic. As when, putting their diversity on display at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, they posted a mariachi band at the convention entrance. Whoa, that's clever. Why not just hang a banner that says, "Queremos a los Mexicanos!" (Y sus votos.)"
Let the record reflect, some white men may be able to jump, but they cannot dance Mexican. Picture middle-aged white men and women wearing red-white-and-blue golf ensembles and elephant hats, gettin' down at the Cozumel cantina.
In the spirit of "At least we don't behead people," we can appreciate that at least they didn't bring in 50 Cent and the G Unit. (Crib for Republicans: That's a rapper and his group, respectively.)
Contrivance, I think, is the word I'm looking for here. Studied diversity is the problem. Faux soul is the crux.
As is the candidacy of Keyes, who though a thoroughly fine and fascinating fellow, smarter than a thousand Harvard grads combined, more articulate than Noah Webster, is also so far right that he can't be seen with peripheral vision.
In an election where the rising Democratic star is a post-civil-rights human bridge between a racist past and a transcendent future, the Republican offering feels more like a sacrifice.
The uncompromisingly pro-life Keyes may be able to win ultra-conservative Republican votes, but he won't attract those hovering near the middle, where, for example, 64 percent of Americans think abortion is a personal decision. His frequent invocations of God - "The battle is for us, but the victory is for God," he recently said - may be a fervent belief for Keyes, but it isn't likely to sit well among moderates in the center pews.
But, by Jove, Keyes is smart and black like Obama. Politics doesn't get much more embarrassing than this, and Republicans have mocked themselves by trotting out an unlikely winner in a patronizing gesture that is racist in the nicest possible way.