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David Kusnet 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 David Kusnet, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, had to say.

Barack Obama isn't lucky. He makes the best of circumstances that could destroy less gifted leaders. For quite some time, he has been capable of moving beyond the usual banalities about race in America. But it took the kind of crisis that sinks some campaigns--the furor over his former pastor's inflammatory sermons--to create the occasion for the best speech about race in recent memory.

Skillfully, Obama weaved a repudiation of the Reverend Wright into a much larger theme about American history. We are an imperfect nation, consisting of flawed individuals and forever scarred by our "original sin of slavery."  But we are on a journey towards fulfilling the promise of our founding documents, which all along contained the answers for the American Dilemma. In this context, Wright's rage is one more example of human frailty, along with other instances of black rage, white resentment, the evasions of generations of national leaders, and the problems that afflict all of us, if only we had the wisdom and vision to look beyond the barriers of race.

An inspiring message it is, and Obama presented it brilliantly, referring to or riffing off of an eclectic range of sources that go far beyond the most familiar sayings of the Rev. Martin Luther King. What other national leader--much less an African American--ever illuminated a plea for racial justice by quoting William Faulkner: "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." While quoting William Faulkner, Obama echoed the sociologist William Julius Wilson's emphasis on race-neutral policies. Indeed, Obama's plea for "binding our particular grievances-- for better health care, and better schools and better jobs--to the larger aspirations of all Americans" recalls the social democratic tradition that Wilson frequently cites, including the labor leader A. Philip Randolph and the civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin. Lastly, by explaining how imperfect people can forge "a more perfect union," Obama implicitly invoked the Great Emancipator himself, Abraham Lincoln.

Subtly but skillfully, Obama strummed Americans "mystic chords of memory." By beginning with the words "we the people," he called to mind Barbara Jordan who also cited the preamble to the Constitution in her statement on the impeachment of President Nixon at the House Judiciary Committee in 1974. By speaking of "doing God's work here on Earth," he quoted John F. Kennedy's inaugural address. And, by acknowledging that Wright "elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America," he recalled the most quoted line from Bill Clinton's first inaugural speech.

Ironically, Bill Clinton is the only recent national figure who has spoken as effectively about race as Obama just did. During the Michigan primary in 1992, Clinton gave the same speech to a black audience in Detroit and a white audience in suburban Macomb Country. He spoke bluntly to both, acknowledging black rage at centuries of racism and white fear of crime and resentment of welfare. But "we will go up or down together," Clinton warned. "This has to be a country for everyone." There was the same bluntness to Obama's acknowledgement that some have claimed his campaign is "based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap."

As with Clinton in Michigan, Obama's most important audience is working class whites who, as he shrewdly observed, "don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race." In yet another original touch, he concluded with the story of Ashley, a campaign worker whose mother lost her job and her health insurance while suffering from cancer. Ashley's plight aroused the compassion of an older man who also worked in Obama's campaign. But, in a twist on stereotypes, Ashley is white, and the older campaign worker is black.

Obama isn't "playing the race card" here. He's playing the hand that was dealt him--brilliantly and creatively.

--David Kusnet