Saturday, March 22, 2008

Win or lose, Obama's speech was good for America

(Originally published 3/22/08)

Ever since the national press began taking marching orders from Saturday Night Live and started giving Barack Obama the once-over a couple of weeks ago, it was just a matter of time before the country was introduced to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., the now-former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Digital clips of Wright’s sometimes vulgar rants against racial inequality, available on YouTube, looped continuously on cable news networks, and the furor surrounding them continued to grow. Obama released strongly worded statements condemning his spiritual mentor’s remarks and spent the weekend making the rounds with national news networks. But the issue refused to die, and top fundraisers grew increasingly uneasy. Obama decided to take the issue on in a nationally televised address.

Pundits said the speech would make or break his campaign, and Obama seemed to agree. He wrote it himself, sharing it only with top aides in the few hours preceding its delivery.

The smart political move for candidates faced with continued and deepening controversy is to disavow and disassociate themselves from the problem – and the quicker, the better.

But as Obama said, his history hasn’t made him the most conventional candidate. So in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, Obama put the finishing touches on a speech that was making its way into American lore by lunchtime.

The speech was nothing short of remarkable. Politics aside, its language and structure were something to behold. Obama’s rhetorical skills have never been questioned; indeed, some believe that he has made it to this point in the presidential sweepstakes precisely because of the grandeur of his oratory.

But even when they are beautifully interwoven in speech, words are just words until they are given brilliance by the soul of their author. That’s what happened Tuesday: Applied to issues like racial hatred and discrimination, which are among the ugliest chords in our nation’s song, Obama’s soaring rhetoric took on a transcendent quality.

There was truth to Obama’s words. He couldn’t disavow Wright; any attempt to do so would rightly ring hollow. He couldn’t excuse Wright, so he didn’t try. Instead, Obama transformed his potential Waterloo into an opportunity to discuss one of the dirtiest secrets in American culture. More daring than speaking truth to power, Obama spoke truth to voters, seemingly determined to let the chips fall where they may.

And then there is Obama himself. The mixed-race son of two culturally divergent parents, raised in corners of the globe from Indonesia to Hawaii to Kansas, a recipient of some of the best education our world has to offer and married to a descendent of “slaves and slave owners,” charged at various times throughout the campaign with being too black or not black enough: Who better to deliver this speech? His unique story all but demands it; indeed, with his oratorical ability and life experience, he is perhaps the only person who could.

If Obama wins the Democratic nomination for president or the presidency itself, Tuesday’s speech will be seen as the turning point. If he loses, pundits will point to it as a lesson for newbies not to stray from their consultants’ proven playbooks. But either way, his country owes Barack Obama a debt of gratitude for his courage to hold up a mirror and encourage our discussion on the 800-pound gorilla that remains entrenched in America’s national psyche.

On the blog this weekend: Links to Obama’s history-making speech, and the blog’s first poll.

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