The Right and The Speech

A working hypothesis.

There are many Americans out there who simply refuse, or don’t have time to read or watch “the speech”.  Understandable.  There are many Americans who have chosen to pass judgement on two men who combine for a century of lived experience on this planet based upon two minutes of recycled YouTube footage.  There are those who will have actually read the speech, but because of preconceived notions, will use it to be more offended, or possibly, more frightened, and retreat further into the kind of racial tension that binds us in this horrid situation.

But I expect this from average Americans.

My intent here is not to denigrate average Americans, or to put myself, or this blogging punditry class on a pedestal.  Instead it is simply to show a disparity, to elaborate upon the idea that while average Americans are in their own way talented, intelligent, and capable people, they simply don’t follow politics the way we do.

In other words, it is reasonable in my mind for some to have taken Obama’s race speech the wrong way because they aren’t where we are as far as political involvement is concerned.  Those who judge without even giving the speech a chance, I understand them too.  They are products of the political apparatus that has evolved in the modern era.  A two minute YouTube out of the greater context of an entire life is far more compatible with the way political information is distributed to the masses than a forty minute speech that shuns the cheap applause lines and soundbites is.

But my working hypothesis is that those who are among the punditry class, those who participate heavily in political blogs, these people have no excuse.  Their minds are well equipped to evaluate the level of political debate in this country, and for all the hemming and hawing they know what they are looking at when they see it.  As a result, misinterpretation of the speech can only come from one thing; willful maligning of the speech and the candidate.

This because while few people in the punditry and blogger caste have no excuse not to comprehend what Obama was saying, there are quite a few who have all the reason in the world to intentionally misconstrue it, to twist and distort it.  For those unfortunate bloggers in support of Clinton who have, in my mind, lost much sense of sanity, it is a matter of dealing the other candidate damage in order to better their own, and these bloggers I’m afraid do the Clinton campaign, as well as themselves, few favors.

For the conservative side of the political sphere, the stakes are much bigger.  The implications of the speech on Tuesday provide an opening to take away in power one of the divisive lines that the politics of 50+1 relies upon.  It also requires ceding that, despite other differences, the Democrat might actually be right on this one.  But most damaging is that to allow this speech to be interpreted and reported upon honestly is to allow the beginning of change in political discourse, a change that bodes poorly not just for Republicans, but for the stock form of politicians in general right now.

In short, my hypothesis suggests that most in the punditry/blogger caste who have continued to trash Obama following the speech in regards to the subjects therein are doing so not because they don’t understand, but because they understand too well and can’t stand aside for it bodes poorly for their movements.

I go through this example because my eye has caught some things as of late that to me delineate a chasm of credibility between those conservative commentators who have approached the aftermath of that speech with intellectual honesty, and those who have not.  Differing words and opinions that stand out in stark contrast to the storm that looks all the more eager not to show indignation because they are indignant, but indignation because if they don’t, they are in danger.

For example:

It seemed to me as honest a speech as one in his position could give within the limits imposed by politics. As such it was a contribution. We’ll see if it was a success. The blowhard guild, proud member since 2000, praised it, and, in the biggest compliment, cable news shows came out of the speech not with jokes or jaded insiderism, but with thought. They started talking, pundits left and right, black and white, about what they’d experienced of race in America. It was kind of wonderful. I thought, Go, America, go, go.

You know what Mr. Obama said. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright was wrong. His sermons were “incendiary,” and they “denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation.” Mr. Obama admitted that if all he knew of Mr. Wright were what he saw on the “endless loop . . . of YouTube,” he wouldn’t like him either. But he’s known him 20 years as a man who taught him Christian faith, helped the poor, served as a Marine, and leads a community helping the homeless, needy and sick. “As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me.” He would not renounce their friendship.

Most significantly, Mr. Obama asserted that race in America has become a generational story. The original sin of slavery is a fact, but the progress we have lived through the past 50 years means each generation experiences race differently. Older blacks, like Mr. Wright, remember Jim Crow and were left misshapen by it. Some rose anyway, some did not; of the latter, a “legacy of defeat” went on to misshape another generation. The result: destructive anger that is at times “exploited by politicians” and that can keep African-Americans “from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition.” But “a similar anger exists within segments of the white community.” He speaks of working- and middle-class whites whose “experience is the immigrant experience,” who started with nothing. “As far as they’re concerned, no one handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch.” “So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town,” when they hear of someone receiving preferences they never received, and “when they’re told their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced,” they feel anger too.

This is all, simply, true. And we are not used to political figures being frank, in this way, in public. For this Mr. Obama deserves deep credit. It is also true the particular whites Obama chose to paint — ethnic, middle class — are precisely the voters he needs to draw in Pennsylvania. It was strategically clever. But as one who witnessed busing in Boston first hand, and whose memories of those days can still bring tears, I was glad for his admission that busing was experienced as an injustice by the white working class. Next step: admitting it was an injustice, period.

* * *

The primary rhetorical virtue of the speech can be found in two words, endemicand Faulkner. Endemic is the kind of word political consultants don’t let politicians use because 72% of Americans don’t understand it. This lowest-common-denominator thinking, based on dizzy polling, has long degraded American discourse. When Obama said Mr. Wright wrongly encouraged “a view that sees white racism as endemic,” everyone understood. Because they’re not, actually, stupid. As for Faulkner — well, this was an American politician quoting William Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” This is a thought, an interesting one, which means most current politicians would never share it.

The speech assumed the audience was intelligent. This was a compliment, and I suspect was received as a gift. It also assumed many in the audience were educated. I was grateful for this, as the educated are not much addressed in American politics.

Here I point out an aspect of the speech that may have a beneficial impact on current rhetoric. It is assumed now that a candidate must say a silly, boring line — “And families in Michigan matter!” or “What I stand for is affordable quality health care!” — and the audience will clap. The line and the applause make, together, the eight-second soundbite that will be used tonight on the news, and seen by the people. This has been standard politico-journalistic procedure for 20 years.

Mr. Obama subverted this in his speech. He didn’t have applause lines. He didn’t give you eight seconds of a line followed by clapping. He spoke in full and longish paragraphs that didn’t summon applause. This left TV producers having to use longer-than-usual soundbites in order to capture his meaning. And so the cuts of the speech you heard on the news were more substantial and interesting than usual, which made the coverage of the speech better. People who didn’t hear it but only saw parts on the news got a real sense of what he’d said.

If Hillary or John McCain said something interesting, they’d get more than an eight-second cut too. But it works only if you don’t write an applause-line speech. It works only if you write a thinking speech.

They should try it.

This from former Reagan speech writer, Peggy Noonan, and she does take issue with a thing or two, but you can tell here is someone being honest with herself and her readers.  Now, if anyone has been paying attention to Peggy, you may have gotten the impression that she’s been flirting with changing sides, and has secretly been in the tank for Obama for a while anyway, so maybe her opinion doesn’t count.

But then, how does one explain Charles Murray, a poster at the heavily right wing NRO blog, The Corner?  He has on multiple occasions shown his appreciation for the speech as he does here again:

To all my friends and people I admire who have completely befuddled me with their reaction to Obama’s speech: Speaking or writing about difficult race problems is different from speaking or writing about any other public policy issue. If you take a position on the Iraq war or health care, you will attract reaction from people who say you’re crazy, but they will be responding to what you actually said and, more or less, to how you actually meant it. The same is not true of race. Text that deals with a difficult racial issue is like a Rorschach ink blot. People project onto that text—project their own experiences, anxieties, angers; all the emotions that go into thinking about race, which means all the emotions that exist. You can weigh every word of your text. You can rewrite it until you think there is absolutely no way that a fair-minded person can fail to understand what you said. And they will not only fail to understand it, they will accuse you of saying exactly the opposite of what you said.


“Murray just has hurt feelings about The Bell Curve,” I hear from the bleachers. Well, yeah. But the problem generalizes to everyone who tries to be honest about race, and now it has happened to Barack Obama. Take, for example, the treatment of his reference to his white grandmother. Of course you can go after him in all the ways that people have gone after him—if what you want to do is go after him. But suppose you approach Obama’s text under the twin assumptions that (a) he is trying to communicate with you, and, (b) your obligation is to make a good-faith effort to understand his meaning. I read what he said about his grandmother, and his words left me in no doubt about two things: He really loves his grandmother, and he was saying something important about race that I recognized from my own experience. I bet many of the people who have slammed him recognize it from their own experience too. The guy was being honest, and he was being right. What the hell more do you want?


Ah, but he was trashing his grandmother for political purposes, he was equating what she said with the much more terrible things that Rev. Wright said, blah, blah, blah. Yes—if you insist on interpreting what he said purely as an exercise in political positioning. No, if you go to his text with the intention of trying to understand what Obama thinks about race.


I understand how naïve it is to read a presidential candidate’s speech as if it were anything except political positioning, but that leads me to my final point: It’s about time that people who disagree with Obama’s politics recognize that he is genuinely different. When he talks, he sounds like a real human being, not a politician. I’m not referring to the speechifying, but to the way he comes across all the time. We’ve had lots of charming politicians. I cannot think of another politician in my lifetime who conveys so much sense of talking to individuals, and talking to them in ways that he sees as one side of a dialogue. Conservatives who insist that he’s nothing but an even slicker Bill Clinton are missing a reality about him, and at their peril.

He closes his post with the assertion that he can’t vote for Obama based upon a difference of opinion on the issues, and I can completely respect that.  That is what this is about, after all.  No one is asking that because Obama made a speech, everyone should run right out and be Obama supporters.  At this point, what we’re asking, or what I’m asking, is that we take the argument, and give it its due.  That we recognize that this speech was perhaps one of the most important messages we’ll hear in this generation, and one that requires an honest survey by all of us, and not the simple hatchet jobs we pull for our team.

But what truly stands out to me is Chris Wallace.  Wallace, prominent Fox News personality, actually “took to task” his colleagues because they were doing what Fox always does; cheap hatchet jobs on Democratic politicians.

These are voices of sanity popping up in a political machine that seems to work in automatic.  It’s as though the entire right wing machine just kept chugging along, missing the fact that it just blew by something unique, and only a small few voices realized that, hey, maybe this isn’t something that should be chewed up and spat back out in the image we choose for it.

Even this, I suppose, is to be expected.  As I’ve said numerous times, as have others, this isn’t the kind of thing that the political media is equipped for.  This level of discourse is not what strategists and pollsters and pundits are used to, and we may all have to suffer a learning curve to adapt.

But this adaptation is one I think will be good for the country, and one that is worth making.  All that needs be done is survive this, our first step.  Then we’ll work on the step after that, and the one after that.

2 Responses to “The Right and The Speech”

  1. Dynamic says:

    That’s one point that needs to be raised to the cynics. This speech was in no way a plea for support. It was not a get out the vote bone thrown to supporters. At no point did Obama go out and say “vote for me, I deserve it.” This was not a campaign speech. It was an intelligent and compassinate man speaking as a civil rights leader, whatever his other positions and responsibilities.

    Viewed from that perspective, people may have an easier time understanding how important it was.

    And then again, they may not. 😆 But Obama was willing to take a chance on the American people, and I am too.

  2. Well, it will be interesting. Doing some reading (I have the time, but i just don’t think I have the energy to write a whole lot tonight) there seems to be a growing consensus that Obama should have won this a long time ago, and the media has kept this charade going on for too long. Mark Halperin has a piece over at the Politico where he references Clinton staffers wh0 acknowledge that she has only about a 10% chance of winning the nomination, and to be honest with you, I only give her that much because of the Wright thing.

    For Super Delegates, it really is a decision between whether the Speech and all the stuff it brings with it, the risk of racial understanding, the risk of addressing Americans as adults, and everything else, whether that is a net positive, or Wright is a net negative that we can’t afford to risk.

    Had I not pledged not to be so antagonistic towards other Democratic candidtes (…), I would point out that other candidates in this field have just as much dirty laundry if not more that also equates to potentially fatal liabilities. Shorter: I still maintain that Clinton is not so vetted as she would have us believe.

    But my greater point is this, we should not be deciding upon a candidate based on their negatives, but instead their positives. Both Democratic candidates have positives, but only Obama is able to give that speech, only Obama is willing to treat Americans like adults. On raw paper in ones and zeroes on issues, Obama comes out as a more marginally progressive candidate than Hillary on some issues, a marginally less progressive candidate on others. But in terms of less tangible leadership qualities, she doesn’t touch him, not in the slightest.

    that should be what governs the SD and our own decision making processes.

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