An American spectacle

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An American spectacle By Ghazi Salahuddin 31st July 2016

Politics, US President Barack Obama said, is not a spectator sport. This is one quote from his truly remarkable speech at the Democratic nominating convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday night – Thursday morning in Pakistan.

We understand the message. But for the world at large, presidential politics in America is very much a spectator sport. Everywhere, they are watching it intently. And the nominating conventions of the two parties present a spectacle that has no parallel in the global political arena. Hence, the four-day convention of the Democratic Party that concluded on Thursday night, with Hillary Clinton accepting the nomination of her party, was the dominating media event of the week.

So, did you follow the proceedings with any interest, getting up very early in the morning to catch the main speakers? I did. In fact, I watched the live transmission on CNN with considerable excitement. It was almost like watching a World Cup game, though in this case the conventions only launch the final lap in the race that will end on November 8.

As for getting very early in the morning, I had the exceptional benefit of suffering from jet lag. We returned to Karachi after our month-long vacation in the US in the small hours of Tuesday. After this journey across an ocean of time, the body clock was in a state of disarray. I felt groggy in the evening and sleepless in the small hours. That is how I was up and about to listen attentively to Obama and the other major speakers.

There were some important political developments in Pakistan this week, tuned to the constant buzz of the rumour mill. Sindh has a new chief minister and one wonders if this will have any effect on the old woes of the province. Yet, in the midst of all this, did our politicians and political enthusiasts have any time to listen carefully to, say, Obama, Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary and a Pakistan-born father of a Muslim-American soldier?

There are lessons here for political leaders and parties as to how democracy functions and what standards are set for leaders who vie for power and authority, irrespective of the possible flaws of the American system and the intricacies of its presidential elections. I had also watched the Republican convention while in the US a week earlier. But my focus is this week’s Democratic convention and how I look at it in the context of our own debilitated version of democracy.

An American nominating convention, held every four years, is a grand affair that matches the grandeur of a Hollywood extravaganza. A circus of sorts, you may call it. But it is meant to project a message that includes the manifesto of the party. There are some ritualistic aspects of how the four days’ events are planned. Every minor detail has to be properly orchestrated. Gradually, the tempo has to be built to the climactic speech of the nominee, in this case Hillary.

However, the spotlight in this convention was on Obama. He made a speech that should live in memory. Here is an individual who personifies the miracle of American democracy. This, to be sure, was the last major speech he would make as the president. We remember that it was as the keynote speaker of the convention held 12 years ago that Obama was introduced to the world as a black American politician with a somewhat peculiar name.

One reason why I wish our politicians had watched the convention is to underline the importance of how a leader articulates his (or her) thoughts and how deadly serious this business actually is. At least on important occasions, a leader must weigh his words and delve deeply into his thoughts to be able to inspire his audience. In that sense, almost all the major speeches delivered at the convention could be compiled as a textbook for aspiring leaders. There were moments that left you literally mesmerised with the beauty and the meaning of what was said.

Let me just cite one rather longish sentence of Michelle Obama that has been commented on in the media: “That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves”.

Now, besides the shining stars of American politics, we should particularly be paying attention to a Pakistan-born individual who has become a celebrity with his appearance in the convention. Khizr Khan stood there with his wife as the father of his American son Capt Humayun Khan who was killed in Iraq. Considering what Donald Trump has been saying about Muslims, Khizr Khan’s forceful message of unity in today’s divided America was an expression of Democratic Party’s electoral strategy.

I was very touched when I heard him. He posed a question to Trump: have you read the constitution? And he displayed the copy he had in his pocket. He asked the Americans to “vote for the healer, not the divider”.

Very impressive, I thought. But I did not foresee the impact that Khizr Khan has made. There was widespread praise for what he said. He was featured in headlines in the media. Hillary herself tweeted: “Capt Khan embodied the best of our values when his actions saved his unit. Last night, his parents told his story”.

This reminds me of how the best and the most effective mode of communication is to tell a story, including in politics. Bill Clinton did it so well, painting himself into the background while he wove the story around Hillary. There was a lot of talk about family and about children in many other speeches to project the human face of politics.

Again, I want to emphasise the seriousness and the significance of how a political campaign is conceived and executed. After this week’s convention, the stage is set for the final round in which the debates between the two nominees will stand out. As Hillary said, the US is perched “at a moment of reckoning”. It is a tense and violent time in the most powerful country of the world.

Like Obama, Hillary will also score a first in her country’s history if she is elected. And the world has a genuine reason to be watching this contest very closely.

The writer is a senior journalist.