Fifty-seven years ago today, Washington, D.C., began filling up with Americans from every part of this country, especially the South. A crowd of 250,000 was expected on the National Mall the following day, and Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, whom I wrote about yesterday, stood in the well of the Senate and uttered some of the most prescient words ever spoken in that chamber.
"When this demonstration has been concluded, we will have evidence in abundance that the lamp of liberty still burns across these shores," Humphrey said. "We will learn again the age-old lesson of liberty that America first learned 200 years ago and has been teaching the rest of mankind ever since."
Humphrey then inserted into the Congressional Record the statement released that day by the leaders of 10 civil rights organizations coordinating the March on Washington. The signatories included Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, along with five other bona fide American heroes.
On the same date 45 years later, a milestone was reached that made at least part of the Rev. King's famous dream come true: An African American candidate was officially nominated as the Democratic Party's presidential nominee.
I realize this is the Republicans' week and that Vice President Mike Pence spoke last night, and the President Donald Trump is speaking tonight. In my mind, however, what took place in Denver on Aug. 27-28, 2008 transcended politics. Not because I'm partisan (I'm decidedly nonpartisan), but because the men and women running for president and vice president that year in both major political parties showed that even in the heat of a political campaign some values reach beyond politics. Friendship, for one. The arc of social justice for another.
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It's easy to forget now, but the Democrats' 2008 presidential primary season initially featured a large and varied roster of candidates. The field included a Latino who'd been governor of New Mexico; a well-known Capitol Hill fixture whose first presidential campaign 20 years earlier ended ignominiously; a handsome Southern trial lawyer-turned-politician whose worst tribulations lay ahead of him; a progressive ex-mayor and congressman from Cleveland in the Bernie Sanders mold -- who may simply have been too far ahead of his time.
That said, the nominating contest quickly devolved into a war of attrition between the most famous woman in American politics and a charismatic African American freshman senator from Illinois. Whoever won the prize, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, the Democratic Party was poised to make history.
The primaries went back and forth. Yet by convention time, it was clear that Obama had accrued the most delegates. On this date in 2008, Mrs. Clinton allowed her name to be put in nomination, but then withdrew theatrically. Midway through the roll call, the floor was yielded to the New York delegation. Clinton, the leader of that delegation, rose and proclaimed, "Madame Secretary, I move that the convention suspend the procedural rules and suspend the further conduct of the roll call vote. All votes cast by the delegates will be counted, and I move Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois be selected by this convention by acclamation as the nominee of the Democratic Party for president of the United States!"
It was pretty good political theater, about as good as it gets in an era in which the iconic smoke-filled room as gone the way of spats and spittoons -- and much more dramatic than anything we've seen during seven nights (and counting) of virtual informercials in 2020.
With the call of the delegates in Denver, the vision of those who organized and attended the 1963 March on Washington became reality. John McCain, Obama's general election opponent, took time out from his own campaign to tape a grace note of appreciation for this historical accomplishment. It came in the form of a classy 30-second videotaped spot in which McCain congratulated his general election opponent for his achievement. And though McCain and Obama were not friends, the Arizona Republican expressed his sentiments warmly, while alluding subtly to the 1963 march.
Joe Biden spoke that very night in Denver, having emerged unexpectedly from the wreckage of another unsuccessful presidential campaign with the second-place trophy. McCain and Biden were friends, as it happened, and though Biden criticized the GOP nominee that night, he was careful to punch above the belt. More than that, really. He actually gave him a rhetorical hug.
Although Biden knocked McCain for supporting George W. Bush in 95% of his Senate votes and said he "profoundly" disagreed with the direction he wanted to take the country, the Democrats' VP nominee prefaced that critique with this:
"You know, John McCain is my friend. And I know you hear that phrase used all the time in politics. I mean it. John McCain is my friend. We've traveled the world together. It's a friendship that goes beyond politics. And the personal courage and heroism demonstrated by John still amazes me."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.