Because I’m on the road I didn’t get to listen to Obama’s Tuesday speech until last night. I’d heard a mixture of reactions to it already — from one friend’s “best political speech of my lifetime” to another’s “not sure he put the controversy to rest.”
So I fired up the browser and tuned in.
First thing I realized: this is one lengthy piece of substantive political argument! After two terms of an incoherent chief executive and a couple decades of soundbite-driven political culture, it felt anachronistic yet oddly invigorating to settle in and realize that I was in for nearly 40 minutes of a well-constructed speech with a long sweep. Obama did not, as Dave Winer put it, “take the shortcuts.” The high road is also, sometimes, a long road.
Second thing I realized: Obama is not only a “great speaker” in the sense that his voice can soar and he can fire up a crowd; he is also able to summon more than one effective style. For most of this speech on race, he ditched the grand oratory and hit calm, somewhat informal, conversational notes: he was like your incredibly articulate friend across a dinner table, going deep into a political argument by increasingly personal anecdotes, gradually getting more passionate as the minutes pass.
Finally, I realized that the speech was a big gamble. As Jay Rosen wrote, it was a challenge to the media — a gauntlet thrown down at the cable networks’ reductive, infinite-loop approach to complex issues. But it was even more a challenge to his audience, to all of us, to listen with less impatience, to think for one moment a little less about the short strokes of one presidential race and a little more about the long arc of our national story.
In substance the speech was deeply pragmatic: It called on the groups that make up the American polis to stop objectifying one another because that simply distracts us from our opportunity to solve some big problems. That’s a practical argument: stop fighting because we’ve got work to do.
The speech’s idealism lay rather on a kind of meta level. In its length, its willingness to delve into history, its plea for us to embrace the complexities of our present conflicts by understanding their roots, it implicitly rejected the dominant mode of American political discourse since Ronald Reagan transformed it in 1980. Yes, Obama’s speech contained anecdotes. Yes, it contained soundbites. But these were the building blocks of something larger and more consequential.
Yes, Obama told us, we can have a political conversation informed by intelligence and nuance and a sense of history. We are not doomed to live forever in the Bush administration’s universe of stunted understanding, or the cable networks’ academy of closed minds.
Is he right? Will his gamble pay off? I’d like to think so. But it might be the most audacious hope of all.
UPDATE: Nick Kristof in the Times starts off with the same point — calling the speech “an acknowledgment of complexity, nuance and legitimate grievances on many sides” — before veering off in a different direction. (Hadn’t read him before I wrote this…)
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