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Todd Gitlin Reviews Obama's Speech

We reached out to several friends of the magazine to respond to Obama's big speech in Philadelphia today. Here's what Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, had to say.

This speech was a triumph on so many levels, does one dare hope it will turn the trick for hordes of parsing skeptics and listeners whose eyes did not water?

First, Obama took the high road, which is also the long and demanding road. He refused to "move on" with a cursory acknowledgment that "mistakes were made." He did not acknowledge. He preached and he reasoned. The law professor was in the pulpit. He refused to settle for sprinkling what have become the automatic contemporary word-drops of "distancing." It will still be possible to parse his words for insufficiencies of denunciation, but Obama's gamble was that he could turn Wright's damnable sins into a pivot for a sermon about how the past can be overcome, about how American it would be to accomplish that hard and necessary objective. "We may have different stories but we hold common hopes"--that was the theme. I don't know if this is true, but we will find out whether it is what America needs to believe.

"I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community," he said of the Reverend Wright.  "I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother--a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.  These people are a part of me.  And they are a part of America, this country that I love."  Now, the Reverend Wright's damnations were not simple expressions of racial fear. Or were they? With his little history lesson, extrapolated from black experience to everyone else's paranoia--all that white anger "grounded in legitimate concerns"--Obama was saying that those statements of Wright he rejected and denounced stemmed from a long ugly history of racial fear; and that the only people to overcome "the racial stalemate" with are the people one belongs to. Politics is crucial, politics is the only way America will improve, but the place of politics is among imperfect persons. He did not flatter America by saying the only angels of its nature are the better ones.

An interesting subtext: filial pride. Family values, you might say. Wright, a parental force, stands for him as a man who came from somewhere, an imperfect American. America, in other words, is imperfect and drives toward a higher form of imperfection. Wright's error was in speaking as if society was static! So Obama challenged his listeners: Are you, with Wright, stuck in the past, or are you ready to roll? What Obama was saying is that America is a perennially self-starting community paradoxically mired in the past, but its opportunity is to overcome that past, and its test is to strive to do that--not by demonization but on a couple of wings and a lot of prayers.

And finally, the temperature of this speech is one of its messages; or should I say invitations? Obama kept his cool and turned up the heat at the same time. For those who have not yet voted, and crucially to the superdelegates, he raised the stakes, asking them all: Can you, too, keep your cool and your heat at the same time? The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, he said, had spoken in an "incendiary" manner, but Obama offered himself as the man who rises from flames and invites you to rise from your own. He took a grievous embarrassment and moved his lesson to the plane of prophecy. Talk about hope; talk about audacity. Tears came to my eyes. I don't think I'm especially hard-hearted, but I cannot think of another time when the speech of a presidential candidate watered me up.

At his own moment of crisis, in 1952, Richard Nixon finicked his way into history accompanied by a non-returnable cocker spaniel named Checkers. In 2008, Obama chose his own game: a new hybrid of chess. It might be a game-changer. We'll find out.

--Todd Gitlin