Obama’s ‘More Perfect Union’ Speech
My colleague Dave Schuler observes, “I’ll wait for the overnight polls. Otherwise my remarks would just be a Rorschach test which is what the commentaries I’ve heard so far have been.” I’ll take that risk. Indeed, that we filter our analysis through our personal experience is not only the nature of blogging but a central thesis of Obama’s speech.
I’ll add the additional caveat that analyzing a speech from its text is problematic in two ways. First, it divorces it from the style of delivery; that disadvantages Obama and advantages George W. Bush. On the other hand, it does get to the substance. Second, most people will neither hear the speech nor read it; rather, they will hear and/or see a handful of sound bytes. My impressions will therefore be quite different than those that inform the overnight polls on which Dave waits.
Be that as it may, the speech accomplished what it presumably set out to do. It re-emphasized Obama’s answer to the “Why are you running for president?” question, namely that his background and skills are uniquely suited to healing what’s wrong with the country. And it took on the Wright question in that light.
I chose to run for president at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together, unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction: toward a better future for our children and our grandchildren.
And this belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own story. I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas.
I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and I’ve lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners, an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.
I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue scattered across three continents. And for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.
It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional of candidates. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts — that out of many, we are truly one.
Now, frankly, I find this narrative ridiculously oversold. Lots of black men have traveled and gotten a great education and his ties with America’s history of racial tension are mostly vicarious. Certainly, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell have better stories to tell in that regard. Regardless, people are buying into this message and re-establishing it as the backdrop for what is to come is smart.
I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy, and in some cases, pain.
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 the 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 disagree.
A nice sleight-of-hand, if an incredibly dubious one. How many people who need to be convinced actually sit in congregations where clergy spout things as outrageous as Wright’s bile?
After a few paragraphs talking about how Wright’s words were “divisive” and distracted us from the challenges of terrorism, climate change, and so forth– a rather nonsensical criticism of a local preacher, frankly — he gets to the meat of it:
Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television sets and YouTube, if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way
But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor.
He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine, and who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who over 30 years has led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth — by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
This gets to the truth via a lie. Does anyone really believe that the three or four sermons that have been aired repeatedly are the entirety of Wright’s misconduct? That he’s normally sweetness and light but, for some inexplicable reason, channeled Louis Farrahkan one a few occasions? That’s just insulting, frankly.
But I’m inclined to believe — indeed, was so inclined before reading Obama’s response — that the rest of this is right. Wright helped Obama through some hard times, inspired him to do good, and it was therefore easy to overlook his bad conduct.
This, too, is completely understandable:
The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America.
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding and baptized my children.
It’s immediately followed, though, with what I believe to be another misdirection:
Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect.
But, surely, he’s heard anti-white and anti-Jewish rhetoric coming from Wright’s pulpit.
He contains within him the contradictions — the good and the bad — of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother, a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are a part of me. And they are part of America, this country that I love.
This is quite powerful and believable. Race is a complicated part of the human equation and decent people have visceral, instinctive reactions to it that coexists — and often competes with — our intellectual understandings.
The speech should have ended there, frankly. That’s a stirring note and a stark contrast with Wright’s infamous “God Damn America” refrain.
Instead, we get many, many paragraphs on Jim Crow and other aspects of America’s history. We already knew that, though; it’s the foreshadowing of this controversy. Hitting us over the head with it detracts from Obama’s appeal. Shelby Steele:
Bargaining is a mask that blacks can wear in the American mainstream, one that enables them to put whites at their ease. This mask diffuses the anxiety that goes along with being white in a multiracial society. Bargainers make the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America’s history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer’s race against him. And whites love this bargain — and feel affection for the bargainer — because it gives them racial innocence in a society where whites live under constant threat of being stigmatized as racist. So the bargainer presents himself as an opportunity for whites to experience racial innocence.
Race helps Mr. Obama in another way — it lifts his political campaign to the level of allegory, making it the stuff of a far higher drama than budget deficits and education reform. His dark skin, with its powerful evocations of America’s tortured racial past, frames the political contest as a morality play. Will his victory mean America’s redemption from its racist past? Will his defeat show an America morally unevolved? Is his campaign a story of black overcoming, an echo of the civil rights movement? Or is it a passing-of-the-torch story, of one generation displacing another?
Because he is black, there is a sense that profound questions stand to be resolved in the unfolding of his political destiny. And, as the Clintons have discovered, it is hard in the real world to run against a candidate of destiny. For many Americans — black and white — Barack Obama is simply too good (and too rare) an opportunity to pass up. For whites, here is the opportunity to document their deliverance from the shames of their forbearers. And for blacks, here is the chance to document the end of inferiority. So the Clintons have found themselves running more against America’s very highest possibilities than against a man. And the press, normally happy to dispel every political pretension, has all but quivered before Mr. Obama. They, too, have feared being on the wrong side of destiny.
Few will hear or read the whole speech and my guess is that the sound bytes won’t come from its dull ending. But Obama should have finished on the uplifting applause line just the same.
Both Bruce McQuain and Publius note the parallels with Mitt Romney’s “Mormon speech.” While that immediately struck me as a brilliant analogy, upon reflection I think it’s not. People had legitimate doubts about Mormonism and Romney’s adherence to its more unorthodox views. Ditto John Kennedy’s “Catholic speech” decades earlier and fealty to the Holy See.
Few seriously thought Obama shared Wright’s crazier views. Rather, there’s a concern that Obama’s carefully crafted transracial, transpartisan appeal is a mask for something more radical. Shelby Steele again:
[N]othing could be more dangerous to Mr. Obama’s political aspirations than the revelation that he, the son of a white woman, sat Sunday after Sunday — for 20 years — in an Afrocentric, black nationalist church in which his own mother, not to mention other whites, could never feel comfortable. His pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is a challenger who goes far past Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in his anti-American outrage (“God damn America”).
Whether this speech will dissuade these fears is beyond my ability to forecast, as I was in the minority that wasn’t all that troubled by the Wright association in the first place. That much, we’ll need to wait for the overnight polls to find out.
Photo credit: Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times
UPDATE: The gang at NRO’s The Corner have ginned up more than a dozen posts on this topic already but two of them encapsulate the likely reactions of people not already predisposed to love Obama and capture nicely the dichotomy I was trying to get at above.
Charles Murray* (yes, that, Charles Murray) gushes,
Has any other major American politician ever made a speech on race that comes even close to this one? As far as I’m concerned, it is just plain flat out brilliant—rhetorically, but also in capturing a lot of nuance about race in America. It is so far above the standard we’re used to from our pols….
Stanley Kurtz, though, sees something more troubling:
Wright could not have taken up so huge a space in Obama’s life unless Obama had let Wright in. And Obama let Wright in because of Wright’s sermons, not in spite of them. Obama may not have agreed with Wright’s solutions, or even with his final judgements, but something about Wright’s anger had to have attracted Obama—had to have seemed tantalizingly “authentic.” From the beginning, Obama had to have been sufficiently attracted to Wright’s excesses to forgive them. Then he sought to draw closer. In this positive attraction to anti-American anger (even if that anger is not quite entirely shared) Obama embodies the sensibilities of the elite academic radicals that are his real heritage and milieu.
*Hat tip to commenter Hal.