0

Leading ladies make the Democrats proud

DENVER - The leading women of the Democratic Party have done their part.

Michelle Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, slated as the featured speakers on the first two nights of the national convention, delivered a pair of speeches that came as close to fulfilling the hopes of the nominees and the party leaders as anyone could have imagined.

They raised the bar for what the voters can expect from Joe Biden and Barack Obama, and signaled to John McCain that the level of professionalism on their side is so high that Republicans will have to stretch to match it.

For those who like to look past the immediate partisan stakes, the message of Monday and Tuesday night is really heartening. Never before has a national party entrusted to women the principal burden of setting the tone for the coming campaign by their domination of the first half of the convention. And rarely, if ever, have the expectations of the convention managers been so well fulfilled.

The phenomenon reflects what we sometimes forget is the revolution in higher education. Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton are products of elite law schools and the leading law firms of their cities, Chicago and Little Rock. It is not hard to imagine a future in which it will be rare for a political party to give prominent roles to mere men.

Obama's task was to provide her husband, the nominee, with a family story that could comfort and reassure the many voters who have trouble identifying with his exotic history and name. His own early autobiography, "Dreams from My Father," set out to do that, but the complications of his mixed racial identity and his post-adolescent struggles to adjust probably created as many uncertainties as the book resolved.

Michelle Obama's narrative locates him (and herself) in a much more stereotypically "normal" working-class family environment. It may be over-sanitized, but it certainly helps bridge the cultural and racial divides. And with their two young daughters on stage with their mother, it became really hard to resist being charmed.

Hillary Clinton faced a challenge more overtly political. I thought the pre-convention buzz about lingering tensions on the side of the Clintons was exaggerated. Neither here in Denver nor last week in New Hampshire did I find evidence supporting the polls that warned Democrats that many of Mrs. Clinton's supporters were ready to defect to McCain or shun the November voting.

Notwithstanding my skepticism, it became apparent over the weekend here that many arriving delegates had persuaded themselves that a word of encouragement from Hillary Clinton might be enough to send her supporters into open rebellion against Obama.

No such word was uttered on Tuesday night. Instead, for at least the sixth time since she ended her own candidacy, Clinton provided a hearty, if not particularly original, endorsement of her erstwhile rival. Twice she referred without gagging to a future where "President Obama" would sign sweeping health care legislation and spur other reforms.

As for her supposed leanings toward McCain, Clinton declared, "No way, no how, no McCain." Clinton acknowledged her personal fondness for the Arizona senator but said that on all the issues that motivated her own campaign, "Barack Obama is my candidate," while McCain offers no relief from the policies of George W. Bush.

In the most direct and probably most effective plea to her own die-hard supporters to get behind Obama, Clinton recalled some of the battered citizens she had met on the trail - a wounded war veteran, an ailing single mother. And she challenged her own backers to ask themselves, "Were you in this campaign just for me?" Or were the needs of all these others part of the motivation?

Her message was clear: If you don't support Obama, as I am doing, you are being a lot more selfish than I am.

Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton are two impressive women - and there are a lot more like them.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at davidbroder@washpost.com.