3.19.2008

The Reviews Are In: Obama's Speech was Historic.

I thought those of you out there in the mainstream media bubble might want to take a gander at an overall theme emerging from yesterday’s historic speech by Barack Obama. In a word: Historic.

Forget the polls, forget the rhetoric on hate radio and Fox ‘news’. The YouTube video of Obama’s speech now has over 1.3 million views in less than 24 hrs.

1.3 Million.

Barack Obama treated American’s like adults yesterday. Something the blow-dried, blowhards on and behind the cameras over at the 24 hours news outlets could take a lesson or two from.

It’s quite something to behold:

New York Times editorial:

There are moments — increasingly rare in risk-abhorrent modern campaigns — when politicians are called upon to bare their fundamental beliefs. In the best of these moments, the speaker does not just salve the current political wound, but also illuminates larger, troubling issues that the nation is wrestling with.

Inaugural addresses by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt come to mind, as does John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on religion, with its enduring vision of the separation between church and state. Senator Barack Obama, who has not faced such tests of character this year, faced one on Tuesday. It is hard to imagine how he could have handled it better.

Washington Post editorial:

Sen. Barack Obama's mission in Philadelphia yesterday was to put the controversy over inflammatory statements made by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., his spiritual mentor and pastor for 20 years, behind him. But Mr. Obama (D-Ill.) went deeper than that. He used his address as a teachable moment, one in which he addressed the pain, anger and frustration of generations of blacks and whites head-on -- and offered a vision of how those experiences could be surmounted, if not forgotten. It was a compelling answer both to the challenge presented by his pastor's comments and to the growing role of race in the presidential campaign.

Boston Globe editorial:

Barack Obama could have made a much shorter speech. He could have protected his campaign yesterday by denouncing and rejecting his former pastor, Rev.Jeremiah Wright, as a crank. Then Obama could have rushed on, hoping that someone else's scandal would push his own out of the headlines.

Instead, Obama took the opportunity to engage the question of race in America, starting a bold, uncomfortably honest conversation. He asked Americans to talk openly about the deep wells of anger and resentment over racism, discrimination, and affirmative action. It's a call to break out of the country's racial stalemate and finally reach a new national understanding.

Time Magazine editorial:


Politicians don't give speeches like the one Barack Obama delivered this morning at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Certainly presidential candidates facing the biggest crisis of their campaigns don't. At moments like these — when circumstances force them to confront and try to defuse a problem that threatens to undermine their campaigns — politicians routinely seek to clarify, diminish and then dispose of the problem. They play down the conflict, whatever it is, then attempt to cut themselves off from it and move on, hoping the media and electorate will do the same. What they don't do is give a speech analyzing the problem and telling Americans that it's actually more complicated than what they believed. They manifestly do not denounce the offensive comments that stirred up the trouble to begin with and then tell Americans to grow up and deal with the fact that those same remarks, however wrong and offensive, are an elemental part of who they are, and who we are.


But that is the breathtakingly unconventional speech Obama gave today. Rather than disown his former pastor and spiritual adviser, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., as well as denounce Wright's controversial sermons, Obama declared that he could denounce but not disown. "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community," he said. He castigated Wright, but did not cast him off. Obama refused to add his voice to the chorus vilifying Wright. Acknowledging how disingenuous that would have been, and how craven, Obama instead pulled Wright back and re-owned him, saying, "As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me."


Mike Huckabee:

Obama made the point, and I think it's a valid one, that you can't hold the candidate responsible for everything that people around him may say or do. You just can't. Whether it's me, whether it's Obama...anybody else. But he did distance himself from the very vitriolic statements…

…Now, the second story. It's interesting to me that there are some people on the left who are having to be very uncomfortable with what Louis Wright said, when they all were all over a Jerry Falwell, or anyone on the right who said things that they found very awkward and uncomfortable years ago. Many times those were statements lifted out of the context of a larger sermon. Sermons, after all, are rarely written word for word by pastors like Reverend Wright, who are delivering them extemporaneously, and caught up in the emotion of the moment. There are things that sometimes get said, that if you put them on paper and looked at them in print, you'd say "Well, I didn't mean to say it quite like that." …

…And one other thing I think we've gotta remember. As easy as it is for those of us who are white, to look back and say "That's a terrible statement!"...I grew up in a very segregated south. And I think that you have to cut some slack -- and I'm gonna be probably the only Conservative in America who's gonna say something like this, but I'm just tellin' you -- we've gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told "you have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can't sit out there with everyone else. There's a separate waiting room in the doctor's office. Here's where you sit on the bus..." And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.

The Corner, Charles Murray:


I read the various posts here on "The Corner," mostly pretty ho-hum or critical about Obama's speech. Then I figured I'd better read the text (I tried to find a video of it, but couldn't). I've just finished. 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.

The Politico, Ben Smith:


A smart colleague notes that this speech is the polar opposite of this year's other big speech on faith, in which Mitt Romney went to Texas to talk about Mormonism, but made just one reference to his Mormon faith.

Obama mentions Wright by name 14 times.


Atlantic.com, 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 have never felt more convinced that this man's candidacy - not this man, his candidacy - and what he can bring us to achieve - is an historic opportunity. This was a testing; and he did not merely pass it by uttering safe bromides. He addressed the intimate, painful love he has for an imperfect and sometimes embittered man. And how that love enables him to see that man's faults and pain as well as his promise. This is what my faith is about. It is what the Gospels are about. This is a candidate who does not merely speak as a Christian. He acts like a Christian.


TPM, Josh Marshall:

I think I have to dissent from David's view that Obama didn't bring his A-game to the speech this morning. I was only able to listen/watch out of the corner of my eye because I was on deadline for something else. But my sense was that the tempo and tenor was suited to the occasion. The kind of stirring delivery he's made a trademark of in his victory celebrations would not have been appropriate for the moment.

Mother Jones, David Corn:

With racial sentiments swirling in the 2008 campaign--notably, Geraldine Ferraro's claim that Barack Obama is not much more than an affirmative action case and the controversy over his former pastor's over-the-top remarks-- Senator Obama on Tuesday morning responded to these recent fusses with a speech unlike any delivered by a major political figure in modern American history. While explaining--not excusing--Reverend Jeremiah Wright's remarks (which Obama had already criticized), he called on all Americans to recognize that even though the United States has experienced progress on the racial reconciliation front in recent decades (Exhibit A: Barack Obama), racial anger exists among both whites and blacks, and he said that this anger and its causes must be fully acknowledged before further progress can be achieved. Obama did this without displaying a trace of anger himself.

Atlantic.com, James Fallows:

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.

Radar, Charles Kaiser:

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.

The American Prospect, Kate Sheppard:

Obama's much-anticipated speech on race today hit the appropriate tone not just for addressing the Jeremiah Wright flap, but for framing the relevance of his candidacy in general. It was best in the way it framed the discomfort and resentment in the discussion of race in America that has lead to a "racial stalemate" for so many years, and made race "a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect.

Charles Murray:

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.

First Read:

His tone throughout was quiet and thoughtful. The same speech could have been delivered in a fiery tone. But Obama chose one that was quiet and thoughtful. It did little to lessen the impact and may have added to the weight of his words.

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.

dnA:

The question is really whether America has already decided Obama is too black to be president. If that line has been crossed, than there's really nothing he can do to convince them otherwise. Ultimately though, you have to wonder whether Obama being marginalized because of his race (and whatever you think of Wright, putting his words in Obama's mouth is about seeing Obama as the sum of racial fears) was an "if," rather than a "when".

Whether or not he gets elected, his candidacy has complicated the way we talk about race in America. On some level, that has to be a good thing.

The Huffington Post, Charles Durang:

…I thought Barack Obama's speech, which finished just minutes ago, was brilliant, nuanced, healing and shows him to be incredibly worthy as a candidate. I hope America is interested enough in progress to embrace this man. We would be lucky, very lucky, to have him as a president. If you didn't see the speech, please seek it out...

I'm sorry -- I don't often get moved and inspired listening to a speaker. I think Barack Obama is brilliant, and he is a genuine healer. If we don't take our chances with him, we are doomed to more of this endless, idiot, non-constructive bickering deadlock that passes for governance in our stuck, stalled political landscape.

Rev. Jesse Jackson:

I thought it was a culmination of tough-minded, tender-hearted and a clear vision," Jackson told the Huffington Post. "It really was warm, filling, captive, reconciling and comprehensive and it displayed real true grit. He was forthright not evasive and used it as a teaching moment in American history: America's struggle to overcome its past and become a more perfect union. And once he made the case about the past and the complexities of Reverend Wright's life or [Geraldine] Ferraro's for that matter, he made the case that we are here now, but this time we will go forward by hope and not backwards by fear.

Atrios:

Aside from disparate treatment of left and right and black and white in our mainstream discourse, there's also a difference in the basic narrative provided. The narrative from the Right - and its representatives in the conservative religious community - is of an America which was once the garden of Eden, until its tragic fall at the hands of (feminists, liberals, civil rights movement, whatever), and they wish to bring the country back to its former state. Thus they can hate the America that is while dreaming of the perfect America that was. Thus there's no conflict between their unquestioned patriotism and their hatred of the country, as their patriotism is for the True America that was, not its current corrupted incarnation.

While the mirror image rhetoric from the Left is about a country which was flawed, often tragically so, but which has the capacity for improvement. Be disgusted with the country as it was and is, while hoping for an evolution to a better country.

Oliver Willis:

One of my personal maxims has been that politicians will disappoint you. The ones you like will have personal failings, while the ones you detest will fail time and time again. With Senator Obama, for the first time in my life, I have watched a political leader who I don’t worry if he’ll be up to the task.

It’s like you had Michael Jordan in his prime or Joe Montana with 2 minutes to go. It’s that feeling where you say to yourself: Ok, breathe, he’s got it.

Chill, Barack’s got it.

The Page, Time Magazine, Mark Halperin:

Obama Rises to the Occasion on Race and the Race…Blows away the chattering class with Philadelphia speech…Delivers historic remarks on race in address that was wide-ranging, personal, and (at times) passionate...Widespread praise from anchors/pundits/reporters for sweeping remarks drawing on American history and his own biracial upbringing.

And just for good measure:

Frank Schaeffer, son of highly influential Religious Right figure Francis Schaeffer (on the Rev. Wright issue in general):

When Senator Obama's preacher thundered about racism and injustice Obama suffered smear-by-association. But when my late father -- Religious Right leader Francis Schaeffer -- denounced America and even called for the violent overthrow of the US government, he was invited to lunch with presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush, Sr.

UPDATE:

Pennsylvania Political Science Professor, Rogers M. Smith (via The Huffington Post):
"Senator Obama sought simultaneously to assure white and Latino Americans that he was not siding with any form of race hatred while also assuring black Americans that he understood their anger and affirmed his community with them. But above all, he strove to shift the prevailing political discourse from a focus on racial divisions to a common progressive agenda of change," said Smith.

[snip]

"Pennsylvania is one of the places where Obama had to be careful not to appear to be "dissing" the black church, particularly outspoken clerical leaders, while he nonetheless did have to distance himself from the despair about white Americans and American progress that he discerned in some of Wright's sermons. The focus on Wright's comments and Obama's stance toward them was not helpful to him here, so it was risky but also wise to address the issue head on as he did," said Smith.

[snip]

"It will most help white liberals feel comfortable about voting for Obama, both because they will agree with its substance and because it will strengthen their belief that he can win. But it will also bolster his already very strong support among most black voters, because it does articulate how many feel. It will help some with white moderates and not at all with conservatives."
UPDATE II:

The New York Times, Janny Scott:

It was an extraordinary moment — the first black candidate with a good chance at becoming a presidential nominee, in a country in which racial distrust runs deep and often unspoken, embarking at a critical juncture in his campaign upon what may be the most significant public discussion of race in decades.

In a speech whose frankness about race many historians said could be likened only to speeches by Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln, Senator Barack Obama, speaking across the street from where the Constitution was written, traced the country’s race problem back to not simply the country’s “original sin of slavery” but the protections for it embedded in the Constitution.

Yet the speech was also hopeful, patriotic, quintessentially American — delivered against a blue backdrop and a phalanx of stars and stripes. Mr. Obama invoked the fundamental values of equality of opportunity, fairness, social justice. He confronted race head-on, then reached beyond it to talk sympathetically about the experiences of the white working class and the plight of workers stripped of jobs and pensions.

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