I know it was a political speech. It was delivered in Philadelphia, PA -- a city riddled with inspiring American history, and a state with a make-or-break primary on the horizon. There was a backdrop of eight American flags and plenty of pre-speech hype -- oh yes, it was political theater of the highest order. But it didn't feel like politics as usual.
Of course, it was also a speech in many ways prompted by a public relations headache that had been plaguing the campaign -- a bombastic minister whose incendiary words were obscuring not just the candidate's message but the candidate himself. But the speech didn't feel like simple political cover, nor was the message convenient or expedient -- it was not a glossy explanation to satisfy the masses. Oh, the speech was carefully crafted to be sure, but it flowed and felt like something Barack Obama has been dying to say publicly for a good long time -- and while he might have wished for different circumstances, he seemed to relish the opportunity.
He stayed up until 2am the night before perfecting the words, putting thoughts to paper that most people won't speak in polite company -- and delivering them the next day for all the world to hear and dissect. Yes, this was a political speech. But it was also intensely personal. And hugely courageous. Like nothing else I have heard this election season, this speech felt presidential -- a State of Our Imperfect Union, if you will. And it toppled me from my self-imposed, "I-miss-John-Edwards" fence. I fell hard -- for Barack Obama.
Pundit Howard Fineman wondered, "Is the speech too high minded for the average voter?" Damn, I hope not. It was elegant but accessible, going right to the basics of the kitchen table economics that lie at the heart of so much prejudice and fear. No pandering. No patronizing. Obama's uniquely American background gave him the insight and -- I think -- a new kind of credibility, to just lay it all out on the table...finally.
"Even for those blacks who did make it [despite discrimination], questions of race, and racism, continue to define their world view in fundamental ways. … That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co- workers or white friends. …That anger is not always productive. Indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems. It keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity within the African-American community in our condition, it prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real, it is powerful, and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. …As far as they're concerned, no one handed them anything, they built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped after a lifetime of labor. … And in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town, when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed, when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudice, resentment builds over time. Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation.
Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. …conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism. And just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze: a corporate culture rife with inside dealing and questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns, this, too, widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding. This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years."
Stalemate is right, and so is Obama -- these are the difficult issues that continue to divide us. The messy, complicated questions that our imperfect union has never honestly confronted, let alone resolved. Obama's seemingly simple observation of the resentment on both sides of the black/white divide becomes profound in his willingness to openly name it in such a forum -- but without the usual platitudes, excuses and empty political rhetoric.
But the question remains -- while the import of the speech seems almost universally accepted if the day-after deconstruction was a fair measure, there is still much discussion about whether the speech was politically effective. Did Obama's unusual-for-a-politician candor win over any voters that he didn't already have? White, working class voters (Reagan Democrats, anyone)? Latinos? The all-important Independent voters? While he moved me, I was not exactly Obama's target audience. And did his words reassure supporters who were shaken by the media's ad nauseum regurgitation of Obama's connection to a controversial minister?
I would submit that the true impact of this speech remains to be seen, and its ripples have the potential to be felt not just for days to come, but decades to come -- if we listened with open hearts, not just open ears. And if we have the good sense to elect a man with this kind of insight into the American psyche, the courage to call us on our failings, and the grace to not shame us in the process. It was a message that has the power to transcend the political stage on which it was delivered... if we let it.
P.S. -- I need to stress that this feeling of rightness about Barack Obama is not a repudiation of Hillary Clinton. Indeed, if she is the Democratic nominee I will happily vote for her. I wrote an Open Letter to her weeks ago, asking her to step aside -- not because I questioned her capabilities but because it seemed clear to me that she couldn't win, not without great cost to the Democratic Party. The bitter divisiveness of this primary has disturbed me, and now it's time to heal. I think Barack ObamaCopyright 2008. The Zaftig Redhead. All Rights Reserved.
is the man to help the party do that, but I think he and Hillary Clinton together have given us a campaign for the ages.