Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Obama's Speech: The Explainer in Chief
I just got a chance to watch Barack Obama's speech, after having read the transcript earlier today. Most of the commentary has focused, for obvious reasons, on his treatment of race and its legacy in American history and politics. And rightly so, because it's about the most succinct, balanced, inclusive and unflinching synthesis that I've seen, and I'm no stranger to the subject.
But not enough has been made, I think, about this portion of his remarks that deals with the capacity for change that exemplifies the American experience:
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen - is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.
Change has obviously been a theme of Obama's campaign, and the election in general, but it has often been reduced to a boilerplate message about changing the way in which we practice politics. This, on the other hand, strikes to the heart of what has historically led people, and continues to lead them, to our country in the hopes of starting anew against all odds: our capacity to change our conception of what America is and what it can be.
It's what gives us such an advantage over countries that are still struggling to reconcile the tensions caused by differences of origin and custom, and what makes us a model for what can be accomplished. American exceptionalism is often a manipulative device hauled out for jingoistic effect, but if there is a reason that America might be considered an exception, truly this is it.
I've also been convinced for some time that the most compelling case for Obama is a generational one. It's time not to turn the page, but to pass the torch. What the previous generation accomplished should not be rejected but refined, improved and built upon. That's what I heard here:
. . .This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation - the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.
And that's really all I need. Whether Obama survives this controversy is to my mind no longer relevant. He has moved the torch along, and if in the end that proves to be insufficient, he will have lost the election with his dignity and character intact.
Ronald Reagan was known as the Great Communicator. With any luck, Obama will become known as the Great Explainer. Hopefully America can spare the half hour it takes for him to lay out his case, not just on this but on other issues of the day as well, because it's a half-hour well spent. If not, if the soundbites carry the day, it will be America's loss. Not Obama's.