Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A defining moment

Today at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Sen. Barack Obama delivered what must be considered the best speech of his political career. Eighteen days from the inevitable and necessary observation of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the contender for the presidency laid bare the great American stain in an address that brilliantly, eloquently posited an American racial future unchained from America’s past.

Responding to a mounting series of attacks on him and his campaign in the wake of incendiary comments from his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and amid a growing queasiness about the role of race in a campaign that until recently has avoided the third-rail issue of our time, Obama addressed the issue head-on and set the tone — if not the bar — for any similarly frank discussions about race from his challengers for the presidency.



Obama’s proven talent for uniting seemingly disparate elements of the American electorate — look at the diversity of the states he’s won so far in the primary season — was validated again today. By conflating the experiences of all Americans of all races and ethnicities, Obama’s deprived his challengers — though most notably Sen. Hillary Clinton, grappling with him for the Democratic nomination — of the sub rosa racial suspicions they might seek to arouse, specifically in Pennsylvania, the next delegate-rich state of the primary season.

"I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy," Obama said of the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, an 8,000-member megachurch in Chicago. "For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely - just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

"But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country - a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

"As such, Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems - two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all."

These excerpts, moving as they are, don't do the speech its proper justice (you can watch the whole thing on the video near the top of this post, if you like) but they reinforce the importance of Obama's basic principle — the nation as community — that has animated his campaign and provided the foundation for the coalition Obama has been building from the beginning.

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Columnists and the punditocracy comprehended the moment.

James Fellows, writing for Atlantic.com: “It was a moment that Obama made great through the seriousness, intelligence, eloquence, and courage of what he said. I don't recall another speech about race with as little pandering or posturing or shying from awkward points, and as much honest attempt to explain and connect, as this one.”

Charles Kaiser in Radar: “He did it. No other presidential candidate in the last forty years has managed to speak so much truth so eloquently at such a crucial juncture in his campaign as Barack Obama did today. And he did it by speaking about race, the most persistent source of hatred among us since America began.

"It turns out that a candidate for president with a white mother and a black father has a capacity that no one else has ever had before: he can articulate an equal understanding of black racism and white racism --and that makes it possible for him to condemn both of them with equal passion.”

Jon Robin Baitz, blogging on HuffPost: “If there was any doubt about what we have missed in the anti-intellectual, ruthlessly incurious Bush years, and even the slippery Clinton ones, those doubts were laid to rest by Barack Obama's magisterial speech today. He reminded us that the dreams of black America do not come at the expense of white America. Someone running for the highest office in the land finally talked about it -- the dark and secret swamp that we Americans dodge at every possible opportunity.”



Trey Ellis (HuffPost): “Obama's speech just now was magnificent not because he relied on soaring rhetoric but because he eschewed it. … His analysis was measured and brilliant in how he empathized with disgruntled and cynical black youths defeated by racism, but urged them to transcend; how he also empathized with struggling white workers unsympathetic to America's history of discrimination and yet urged them, too, to join in the fight to better this nation.”

Andrew Sullivan, in Atlantic.com, said “this searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech is the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime. It is a speech we have all been waiting for for a generation. Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history.”

And MSNBC's "Hardball" host Chris Matthews, whom we've had problems with in the past, was pitch-perfect in his placement of the speech in the wider American pantheon of that which explains America to itself:

"This should be, to me, an American tract, something you just check in with now and then, like reading 'The Great Gatsby' or 'Huckleberry Finn.' "

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The blogosphere weighed in big time. NickOhio, blogging at HuffPost: "The speech was brilliant. It should show open up the debate and, for better or worse, allow us to see ourselves for what we are... a recovering racist nation. You may not agree with his comments nor his tone, but Senator Barack Obama has just raised the bar a few notches on the challenge to America.
"

Monicall, also on HuffPost, smartly flips the script on the weight of Rev. Wright’s words and Obama’s own, asking the uncomfortable but necessary questions of an oratorical double standard in the national discourse:

“It's amazing to see those who are dismissing Obama's powerful heartfelt speech as ‘just meaningless talk’ or ‘just political.’ Yet those very same people are putting so much stock in what Rev. Wright says. So only negative rhetoric is believeable and energizing to you. If someone has something powerful and positive to say from their own mouths, you just can't buy that?! 
Why aren't you dismissing Rev. Wright’s words so easily, as meaningless garble. Why are Wright’s negative words viewed by you as so impactful, yet Obama's honesty from his own mouth dismissed as mere rhetoric?”

But Monique, at HuffPost, also makes a telling point – that Obama was under no pressure to stay in Wright’s congregation in the face of language and attitude that offended him. There are, she implies, many ways to vote, first among them with your feet.

“If I heard a minister speak such anger and hatred, I would have the courage to pick myself up and walk right out -- whether the speaker was speaking against whites or blacks.

As a leader, I would expect at least that much from Obama.
 But he not only failed to get up and walk out. He remained in that seat for 20 years.

“Wright's words were not words of transcendence,” Monique blogs. “They are the old, angry words of blame and hate. And not words that would keep me rooted in my seat for an hour, or twenty years.”

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The media’s tendency to offer immediate analysis is likely to be frustrated this time. The speech — its resonance, its appeal to Americans across the racial divide, its possible impact for voters in Pennsylvania — hasn’t trickled down far enough yet, and probably won’t for a few days.

But Jesse Jackson, on HuffPost, said that Obama “had turned crisis into opportunity.” And that’s likely to be the major takeaway from this speech: Rather than be put forever on the defensive about a pastor’s comments — words Obama didn’t make, had nothing to do with making, words he’s rejected and denounced more than once — Obama has taken this inside fastball and parked it in the centerfield stands. Obama’s speech was an absolute throwdown to the Clinton campaign, a dare to the forces of Hillary to raise their game in the remaining primary contests — to resist using the grim intimations of racial poliltics to advance a candidacy whose philosophical foundation seems to get shakier all the time.

In a speech already ranked as one of the finest in almost half a century, the biracial junior senator from Illinois hasn’t so much reframed the debate on race — God knows, we’ve never really had one — as he has dared the American people to have a debate about race — dared the nation to stop retreating to the reflexive anger and resentment that litter the American past.

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The most reasoned, eloquent, passionate response to the speech from the blogosphere — maybe from anywhere — came from a place both alien and central to our lives. It came from Zipperupus, a Marine posting on HuffPost from Iraq, fighting one of two foreign wars, at a high burn rate of its lives, treasure and prestige, writing to a nation fighting its own ethnic war, at a high burn rate of its soul:

“The core reason that Obama is ahead of Hillary and will be the next President is because he speaks to our better selves. He doesn't simply cough up a bromide about God and country. He shows us the division, the left/right red/blue black/white divide and tells us that we can fix it by striving for the commonwealth. This is a huge deal.

“I'm tired of fighting. My sword wants to be beaten into a plowshare so bad... I want to go to work putting things back together, and i don't care if the person next to me voted for the other guy or gal. Now is the time to elect someone who stands for unity and healing, eloquence and sacrifice.



“Obama 08”

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