I thought Barack Obama’s speech was strong, thoughtful and important. Rather beautifully, it was a speech to think to, not clap to. It was clear that’s what he wanted, and this is rare.
It seemed to me as honest a speech as one in his position could give within the limits imposed by politics. As such it was a contribution. We’ll see if it was a success. The blowhard guild, proud member since 2000, praised it, and, in the biggest compliment, cable news shows came out of the speech not with jokes or jaded insiderism, but with thought. They started talking, pundits left and right, black and white, about what they’d experienced of race in America. It was kind of wonderful. I thought, Go, America, go, go.
You know what Mr. Obama said. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright was wrong. His sermons were “incendiary,” and they “denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation.” Mr. Obama admitted that if all he knew of Mr. Wright were what he saw on the “endless loop . . . of YouTube,” he wouldn’t like him either. But he’s known him 20 years as a man who taught him Christian faith, helped the poor, served as a Marine, and leads a community helping the homeless, needy and sick. “As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me.” He would not renounce their friendship.
Most significantly, Mr. Obama asserted that race in America has become a generational story. The original sin of slavery is a fact, but the progress we have lived through the past 50 years means each generation experiences race differently. Older blacks, like Mr. Wright, remember Jim Crow and were left misshapen by it. Some rose anyway, some did not; of the latter, a “legacy of defeat” went on to misshape another generation. The result: destructive anger that is at times “exploited by politicians” and that can keep African-Americans “from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition.” But “a similar anger exists within segments of the white community.” He speaks of working- and middle-class whites whose “experience is the immigrant experience,” who started with nothing. “As far as they’re concerned, no one handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch.” “So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town,” when they hear of someone receiving preferences they never received, and “when they’re told their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced,” they feel anger too.
This is all, simply, true. And we are not used to political figures being frank, in this way, in public. For this Mr. Obama deserves deep credit. It is also true the particular whites Obama chose to paint—ethnic, middle class—are precisely the voters he needs to draw in Pennsylvania. It was strategically clever. But as one who witnessed busing in Boston first hand, and whose memories of those days can still bring tears, I was glad for his admission that busing was experienced as an injustice by the white working class. Next step: admitting it was an injustice, period.
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The primary rhetorical virtue of the speech can be found in two words, endemic and Faulkner. Endemic is the kind of word political consultants don’t let politicians use because 72% of Americans don’t understand it. This lowest-common-denominator thinking, based on dizzy polling, has long degraded American discourse. When Obama said Mr. Wright wrongly encouraged “a view that sees white racism as endemic,” everyone understood. Because they’re not, actually, stupid. As for Faulkner—well, this was an American politician quoting William Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” This is a thought, an interesting one, which means most current politicians would never share it.
The speech assumed the audience was intelligent. This was a compliment, and I suspect was received as a gift. It also assumed many in the audience were educated. I was grateful for this, as the educated are not much addressed in American politics.
Here I point out an aspect of the speech that may have a beneficial impact on current rhetoric. It is assumed now that a candidate must say a silly, boring line—“And families in Michigan matter!” or “What I stand for is affordable quality health care!”—and the audience will clap. The line and the applause make, together, the eight-second soundbite that will be used tonight on the news, and seen by the people. This has been standard politico-journalistic procedure for 20 years.
Mr. Obama subverted this in his speech. He didn’t have applause lines. He didn’t give you eight seconds of a line followed by clapping. He spoke in full and longish paragraphs that didn’t summon applause. This left TV producers having to use longer-than-usual soundbites in order to capture his meaning. And so the cuts of the speech you heard on the news were more substantial and interesting than usual, which made the coverage of the speech better. People who didn’t hear it but only saw parts on the news got a real sense of what he’d said.
If Hillary or John McCain said something interesting, they’d get more than an eight-second cut too. But it works only if you don’t write an applause-line speech. It works only if you write a thinking speech.
They should try it.
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Here’s what didn’t work. Near the end of the speech, Mr. Obama painted an America that didn’t summon thoughts of Faulkner but of William Blake. The bankruptcies, the dark satanic mills, the job loss and corporate corruptions. There is of course some truth in his portrait, but why do appeals to the Democratic base have to be so unrelievedly, so unrealistically, bleak?
This connected in my mind to the persistent feeling one has—the fear one has, actually—that the Obamas, he and she, may not actually know all that much about America. They are bright, accomplished, decent, they know all about the yuppie experience, the buppie experience, Ivy League ways, networking. But they bring along with all this—perhaps defensively, to keep their ideological views from being refuted by the evidence of their own lives, or so as not to be embarrassed about how nice fame, success, and power are—habitual reversions to how tough it is to be in America, and to be black in America, and how everyone since the Reagan days has been dying of nothing to eat, and of exploding untreated diseases. America is always coming to them on crutches.
But most people didn’t experience the past 25 years that way. Because it wasn’t that way. Do the Obamas know it?
This is a lot of baggage to bring into the Executive Mansion.
Still, it was a good speech, and a serious one. I don’t know if it will help him. We’re in uncharted territory. We’ve never had a major-party presidential front-runner who is black, or rather black and white, who has given such an address. We don’t know if more voters will be alienated by Mr. Wright than will be impressed by the speech about Mr. Wright. We don’t know if voters will welcome a meditation on race. My sense: The speech will be labeled by history as the speech that saved a candidacy or the speech that helped do it in. I hope the former.