Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Raising The Barack

Political speeches are primarily judged by two criteria: style and substance. It is not sufficient to be deemed a great oration for the content of the speech to be relevant or resonant. The speaker must also possess a gift for conveying those ideas to the audience, a voice to captivate them and a tenor to move them, the acumen needed to articulate with clear conviction, enough to convince the listener of the speaker's sincerity, determination and the rightness of his ideas. This past Tuesday night, these two components of skilled locution were brought together brilliantly.

Setting: the Democratic Convention at the Fleet Center in Boston. Enter stage left: A relative unknown named Barack Obama, a state Senator from Illinois who is running, as a heavy favorite, for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by retiring Senator Peter Fitzgerald (R), a race that could tilt the balance of power in the Senate to the Democratic Party. Although operating in relative obscurity until only recently, his speech was highly anticipated, preceded by an ever augmenting sense of promise, touting this rising star as the Tiger Woods of the Democratic Party. The label refers as much to his diverse ethnic background (his father is Kenyan and his mother is Caucasian from Kansas, and he was raised by an Indonesian step-father at times in Indonesia), as his apparent prodigious political talents. Of note, if elected he would become only the third African American Senator since Reconstruction.

Despite the daunting expectations, and the hype churned into a froth by the swarm of 24-hour media coverage, Barack Obama rose to the occasion, even surpassing the lofty bar set by those anticipating his performance. He seemlessly intertwined compelling content with smooth eloquence.  In so doing, he succeeded in delivering the finest speech to date at the Democratic Convention. Considering how adroit Clinton was the night before, this is high praise. But praise well deserved.

With a deftness beyond his years (although he looks much younger, he is actually 42) and experience, limited to state politics in Illinois, (although it should be noted, he is a graduate of Harvard Law school, and the first African American Editor of the Harvard Law Review), he delivered a powerful and moving speech, which also stayed away from divisive or polarizing themes.

Eschewing some of the more charged racial rhetoric characterized by iconoclastic movement figures like Jesse Jackson, Obama celebrated the diversity of his heritage but emphasized the unity of America, the oneness of its peoples:

"There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."
In many ways he represents the next wave of the Civil Rights movement. His frame of reference is not rooted in segregation and Jim Crow, and as such he is able to connect to the current problems of race in a more dialectical manner. Although he respects and acknowledges the numerous and invaluable contributions of those that came before him, and recognizes the challenges that remain, his focus was on his "abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation."

Echoing the recent controversial statements made by Bill Cosby, and touching on some of the themes of blackness gone awry as espoused by Debra Dickerson, Obama called on members of the black community to own up to their personal responsibility in the face of their struggle (although his was a velvet touch compared to Cosby's hammer):

"Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white."
He returned to the theme of unity to dispel the pundit-driven, hyper-exaggerated and overly mythologized narrative of Red State/Blue State political cleavages and ideological polarization. Rather than divide, he unites:

"...There's not a liberal America and a conservative America - there's the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."
Building on this concept of one America, he appealed to the compassionate America. The empathetic America. The America for which morality is not the understudy to moralism, but for which real values are put into action and not used as red herrings to drive wedges between families, neighbors and countrymen.

"If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandmother. If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It's that fundamental belief - I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper - that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. "E pluribus unum." Out of many, one."
He rounded out the speech with strong words on Kerry's ability and determination to prosecute the war against jihadist Islamist terrorists.  And of course, he discussed at length the economic hardships facing the middle and working classes in this uniquely two-tiered recovery. He used anecdotes to convey the impact of unemployment and underemployment, skyrocketing health care costs, and the lack of quality public education on an ever shrinking middle class. What he did, though, was carefully craft his solutions and rhetoric so as to break with what has at times, fairly or otherwise, been an affliction ascribed to the Democratic Party: the belief in the omnipotence of a government initiated solution.

"Don't get me wrong. The people I meet in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks, they don't expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead and they want to. Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don't want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or the Pentagon. Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach kids to learn."
Having thus laid out the parameters, he also recognizes that just because government can't do all things corrective, and right all wrongs, that doesn't mean that policy priorities cannot have a tremendously beneficial impact on the opportunities for every American and the quality of life that they can achieve through hard work and perseverance:

"But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. They know we can do better. And they want that choice."
His clarity, wisdom and charisma serve Obama Barack well.  His charm and appeal are winning over converts at the speed of sound.  It is no wonder that the buzz du jour has him as a likely candidate to become the eventual first African American president.  Only time will tell but after watching his performance at the podium during the Convention, all I can say is for Obama, the sky is the limit.  For he has embraced "the audacity of hope" and it is an infectious idea.

The full text of his speech can be found here (but of course the text does not capture his praiseworthy oratory talent) 

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