Inauguration Day of 1829 was one for the history books. It followed a vicious, mud-slinging campaign that cost the life of the victor's wife, or at least that's what he believed to his dying day. Andrew Jackson came to Washington, D.C., draped in mourning, and not alone. A bemused Daniel Webster wrote:
"A monstrous crowd of people is in the city. I never saw any thing like it before. Persons have come five hundred miles to see General Jackson; and they really seem to think that the country is rescued from some dreadful danger."
Jackson was a man of the people, standing up to East Coast bluebloods and bureaucrats. If the campaign had a theme it was Mobs vs. Snobs. The "monstrous crowd" was so ecstatic they almost wrecked the White House, which was saved once the punch bowls were hauled outside and the celebrants duly followed.
Democrats in Charlotte, N.C., last week didn't go that far, but judging from their convention they also fervently believe that the country must be rescued from some dreadful danger. And that danger is Mitt Romney and the Republicans.
Women were a particular target - I mean, target audience. During the Democratic Women's Caucus on Tuesday, delegates got an earful from Nancy Pelosi, EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock, and Democratic National Committee vice chairwoman Donna Brazile, among others. Apparently Republicans only say they like women: They really want to outlaw birth control (Pelosi) and keep women in the kitchen (Schriock) - or, if the ladies insist on going out, send them to the back of the bus (Brazile). In speeches at the convention, perennial Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke and actress Kerry Washington assured the delegates that Gov. Romney is gunning for women's rights. It's like the bad old days of segregation all over again.
And speaking of segregation, on Thursday evening Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., harked back to his days as a freedom rider during the battle for civil rights. Lewis movingly recalled how a white demonstrator who helped beat him up in Rock Hill, S.C., sought him out years later and asked for his forgiveness. Lewis forgave, the two men hugged, delegates wept. And then the speaker went on to say, "This man and I don't want to go back - we don't want to go back. Brothers and sisters! Do you want to go back?" "NOOOO!" roared the delegates.
Those of us outside the convention hall, like Daniel Webster in 1829, may wonder what any of this has to do with reality. It almost sounded as if Obama were the brave challenger and Romney the entrenched oligarch, in epic struggles that were settled decades ago. In her pep talk to the women's caucus, senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett slipped up a bit in encouraging women to work hard between now and Election Day, saying "I am confident that come Nov. 6 we will have a new president!" Oops - she corrected herself: "The same president that we have right now!"
Obviously the president can't run on his record. The Democratic convention wasn't selling policy but narrative, complete with central conflict, local heroes, thrilling victories, heart-rending defeats, a villain and his evil henchmen, and a mighty champion.
Republicans do this, too, of course. In the Republican narrative, the hero is the American people. Neither story will be totally sufficient for the dreadful dangers (to use Daniel Webster's terminology) of record unemployment and staggering debt, but the true believers at the Democratic convention seemed to be on shakier ground.