A night to remember

On Day 2, Democratic convention speakers celebrate America as a nation of immigrants, emphasizing inclusion and legacy.


Sidney Blumenthal
July 28, 2004 8:09PM (UTC)

The least known book by John F. Kennedy was published the year after his assassination. "A Nation of Immigrants" was more than a tribute to newcomers, intended as an overture to the transformation of U.S. immigration policy, still highly restrictive of non-Anglo-Saxon and northern Europeans, a legacy of the conservative nativist 1920s. Kennedy may have been a son of privilege, but he was never distant from his family's Irish roots. Along with his support for civil rights legislation, the greatest change Kennedy wrought in the nature of American society was the reform of immigration policy. Our diverse country of the 21st century is among his legacies.

Barack Obama and Maria Teresa Thierstein Simões-Ferreira were among two immigrants from Africa. Obama, an economist from Kenya, married a woman from Kansas and had a son, also named Barack (which means "blessing"). The parents divorced, and young Barack was partly raised by his grandmother; he became the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review, taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago and was elected a state senator in Illinois.

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Maria Teresa, the daughter of a Mozambican physician, studied at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she was an activist against apartheid, and then became a translator for the United Nations. She married John Heinz, heir to the food industry fortune; he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania as a Republican and died in a helicopter accident. Teresa inherited his estate, increased her philanthropic endeavors and remarried a man her husband had introduced to her at an Earth Day rally, another senator, John Kerry.

On Tuesday, Barack Obama, Teresa Heinz Kerry and Ron Reagan, a political migrant of sorts, shared the Democratic convention platform as speakers with Sen. Edward Kennedy. It was a pageant of tradition and inclusion, memory and succession.

Obama is certain to be elected the third African American in the Senate since Reconstruction. (The Republican Party cannot even scrounge up an opponent after its candidate, a classic back-to-basics conservative hypocrite, Jack Ryan, self-immolated after releasing his divorce records, which described his wife's objections to being escorted to Paris sex clubs.)

Obama's rhetorical task was similar to former President Clinton's the night before: to assail the polarization of the country and upend conventional categories to advance a common program. "The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states."

Reagan mounted the stage to speak in favor of the stem cell research that may one day cure diseases including Alzheimer's, which afflicted his father, and that is blocked by President Bush. The Republican policy on Ronald Reagan has helped realign the Reagan family. Ron has always been a free spirit, but never an advocate. But real life compelled him, with the quiet approval of his mother, according to a family friend, to appear before the Democrats.

Reagan described the possibilities of new science and the politics frustrating it. "A few of these folks, needless to say, are just grinding a political ax, and they should he ashamed of themselves ... It does not follow that the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many ... We can choose between the future and the past, between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology."

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Heinz Kerry, notable for her frankness, had suggested on the eve of the convention that the editorial page editor of the far-right-wing newspaper in her hometown of Pittsburgh who had long harassed her "shove it." The incident was replayed on TV as though on an endless feedback loop. But she was defended by another outspoken woman, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton: "Good for you! You go, girl!"

Before the convention, Heinz Kerry spoke of her reputation as a demeaning stereotype. "My only hope," she said, "is that, one day soon, women, who have all earned their right to their opinions instead of being labeled opinionated, will be called smart and well informed, just like men ... I want to acknowledge and honor the women of this world whose wise voices for much too long have been excluded and discounted." She described the presidential contest as between two different kinds of men, between "leaders who mistake stubbornness for strength" and leaders like her husband, who does not "fear disagreement or dissent." He is a man who listens. "He believes that our voices -- yours and mine -- must be the voices of freedom."

Kennedy, the last of the brothers, the clan's patriarch, unable to reach the presidency himself, is now spending his lifetime of political capital on behalf of his junior senator. Evoking Abraham Lincoln, Obama stands as another lanky lawyer from Illinois and as his legacy, too; the land of Lincoln is the land of Obama. Reagan, the father, had begun as a Democrat, and at last with his son's speech the circle is unbroken. Heinz Kerry, who also cited Lincoln, in her lilting Portuguese accent, refuses to be silenced or subdued, and speaks not just for the right of one woman's voice to be heard.


Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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