Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Speech

One of the great failings of Mitt Romney's December speech on religion was that it was not a discussion-generating event after the speech was given. People heard what he had to say, noted that he didn't screw up, then asked themselves "So what else happened today?" Maybe if Romney had won Iowa reporters would have gone back and said, "You know what really turned this campaign around for old Mitt? That Faith in America speech he gave a month ago."

But he didn't win Iowa.

Obama's speech is definitely generating buzz. For one thing, you can find transcriptions of the speech just about everywhere (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) The campaign seems to have wisely supplied an embargoed copy of the remarks to as many reporters as humanly possible, so they were clearly confident they had winner on their hands. They're clearly going to be doing a lot of hand-holding with the media:

His biggest gamble is to treat the subject with the depth and seriousness and complexity that it deserves. He is banking on enough reporters, pundits and voters hearing him out on this very difficult subject.

Not to mention discussing many of the aspects of the speech in great detail to their audiences. Right now that plan seems to be working (whereas Romney's speech failed). Here's just a sampling of what people are saying:

Ed Kilgore:

How will this entire speech go over? It's hard to say. It won't satisfy those who expected Obama to "reject" Wright as he rejected Farrakhan. It will offer fresh ammunition to Republicans who claim the "real" Obama is revealed by his associations in Chicago. It will anger some people on both sides of the racial divide by its flat statement of moral equivalence between black and white resentments. But it may resonate with Americans (especially Catholics) who have loyally attended churches for years while rejecting or ignoring key elements of church teachings.

Marc Ambinder:

How it plays will determine how it plays. If the media focuses more on the Wright defense-by-renouncements and then juxtaposes them with clips of Wright's comments, then I think the trouble remains. The seeds of doubt about who this guy really is may be nourished. I know that Obama believes that a discussion about race plays to his benefit, no matter what people think about white working class voters and their latent feelings. Perhaps this is the beginning of his opportunity to lift the veil and get everyone -- not just himself and the media -- to talk openly.

Pete Able:

Of all the words he spoke, those three — “not this time” — seemed the defining words of the moment; not just of the speech, but of his entire campaign.

Better than most, those words capture, I think, why so many people from so many corners of the country — from different races, income levels, genders, and ideologies — have rallied to his candidacy: because they believe their vote for him is a vote against the past and for a different approach, a different future. Will we be divided along artificial lines of race and income and party? Not this time. Will we succumb to smear campaigns? Not this time. Will we stumble through the world blind to the fears and hopes of others? Not this time.

Craig Crawford:

Barack Obama gave two speeches in one today that might have been best done separately. He tried to connect the national reaction against his pastor’s wacky ideas to the need for a national conversation about race.


Attempting to elevate the Wright flap to a broad sociological discussion might get Obama out of a rough political spot by changing the subject. But if he is saying that a healing conversation about race requires better understanding of his crazy preacher, many voters would rather talk about something else.

The Columbia Journalism Review:

Obama spoke with unusual directness about the economic legacy of racism, about today’s full texture of ethnic identity and resentment, about the need for genuine discussion on race, and about where to go from here.

Let’s meet him where’s he’s led us. There’s no reason Clinton and McCain can’t join in, but again, this needn’t—and in some ways shouldn’t—be a campaign-focused conversation. It’s a long overdue national conversation.

Charles Murray (whom, as Marc Ambinder points out, is the author of The Bell Curve):

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.... But you know me. Starry-eyed Obama groupie.

Rush Limbaugh (by way of Ambinder):

On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh said that Barack Obama was now "the candidate of race."

He said Obama "is not an agent of racial healing, he is a product of it."

He accuses of Obama of wanting to be the nation's racial-healer-in-chief, rather than its commander-in-chief.

From the Hotline:

Obama's call today was not just for the candidates to tone down the use of race in the presidential contest. What he said was bigger than that. It was more authentic than that. He challenged people, of all colors and backgrounds, to transcend their deepest distrust of each other in the interest of progress. To redefine the conversation about race in America.

To blacks, he said, embrace your past, do not fall victim to it. To whites, he said, it is time to acknowledge that "what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people."

Such an undeniably tall order, no? And yet, on gut alone, it felt reasonable, righteous.


The more I think about this speech, the more I think Obama said: Damn straight, Rev. Wright is angry. That's how I wound up at his church. That's why I stay there. I'm mad too, I just control it better. Now let's get electing me president so we can all feel good.

Andrew Sullivan:

Alas, I cannot give a more considered response right now as I have to get on the road. But I do want to say that 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.


I love this country. I don't remember loving it or hoping more from it than today.

David Brody:

We won't know for awhile how voters view Barack Obama's speech today on race relations but The Brody File saw it as a HUGE positive for Obama and a successful turning point for the future of his campaign. ... He will always have his doubters. Some will say he should have left right then and there but Obama argues that you have to look at the whole picture. He's making the case that Wright's ministry needs to be seen in totality. Voters will decide if that is a sustainable argument."

The Weekly Standard:

[I]t turns out that Barack Obama is really no different than any other conventional liberal candidate for the presidency. He blames America, racism, and the past for the problems of today...


The controversial speech that would have saved Obama's campaign is here, and it was delivered on the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education by a man who really has transcended race. On that day, Bill Cosby said, "Brown Versus the Board of Education is no longer the white person’s problem." He said "We cannot blame white people." And he spoke about a culture of accountability as the only path to success for Black America.

I just want to pause for a second to let the reader absorb this last one: The Weekly Standard is suggesting we exchange an Obama speech for a Bill Cosby speech ...

Did you get that? Moving on ...

Kevin Drum:

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Barack Obama for finally taking the stage and shutting up CNN's talking heads. That alone makes his speech worthwhile.

There's plenty more here, here and here.

What did I think? With the exception of the remarkable idiocy of Michael Goldfarb over at the Weekly standard and Rush Limbaugh, there is truth to much of the above, but that at the end of the day the greatness -- and it's definitely one of the best speeches I've ever heard -- of the speech is going to be measured in it's immensity. This speech has the ability to keep people talking for months, maybe even years, parsing and dissecting its words and its meaning and how it relates and reflects the racial experience in America and to Obama's own personal experience.

Obviously the most controversial aspect of the speech was Obama's refusal to throw Wright under the bus and I have a difficult time trying to re-imagine a speech in which he does so. The right will certainly bend over backwards to stick this on Obama, but in the long run I have a feeling that this will be interpreted by many as the moment when the student became his spiritual teacher's master.

If Obama's campaign is to be about unity and inclusion, he can't being running around tossing the people closest to him out to the wolves and not expect others to notice. In a strange way I can't help but feeling that Wright's incendiary remarks are in someway personifying the American "original sin" of race relations in this little drama. By condemning Wright's words Obama is acknowledging that there are unresolved matters between all races in this country and by not condemning Wright-the-man Obama is saying that he's not going to simply sweep these problems under the carpet and ignore them as we have a history of doing (as this guy seems to suggest we do).

There are many layers to this imbroglio, some of which I don't think we'll discover for some time now, but judging by Sen. Obama's response to this mess he has a keen idea just how complicated this matter is and a good notion on how to proceed with. David Corn made a sharp observation that this isn't a Sister Souljah moment and seems to me that he's largely correct to say that. Obama's got a narrow line to walk on this issue, but if this speech says anything to anyone, it's that he's going to be capable -- and daring enough -- to do it.

Clearly, this is not going to be the final word on the subject.

1 comment:

3rd Way said...

"The Speech" was Obama's first test of his reaction to a crisis. He handled it perfectly. He should be our next president.