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David Greenberg Reviews Obama's Speech

We reached out to several friends of the magazine to respond to Obama's big speech in Philadelphia. Here's what David Greenberg, professor of history and media studies at Rutgers, had to say.

When a speech like the one Barack Obama gave Tuesday is hailed as "epochal" and "historic," something more than a dispassionate analysis of its content is at work. I found Todd Gitlin's close reading to be stimulating, David Kusnet's search for influences to be revealing, and Bill Galston's skepticism to be refreshing. (For even more thorough skepticism, see Mickey Kaus at Slate.) But instead of offering another parsing, let me speculate about why it's getting the raves it is.

Taking nothing away from the speech, which clearly had its merits and its flaws, it was obvious in advance that the commentariat would swoon over it, almost regardless of its content. The reason is that the news media create certain familiar narratives, especially in campaign coverage, in which speeches like this play a key part. It's a melodramatic narrative of a hero, a crisis, and a comforting resolution. In these narratives, the hero--who need not be as well-liked among the pundit class as Obama seems to be--is engaged in an admirable pursuit, only to find himself caught in an unforeseen controversy or tested by an unprecedented challenge. The moment demands a new level of statesmanship. Invariably, he rises to the occasion, faces the adversity, hits the right notes, and leaves us all feeling better.

This narrative has played out time and again. Mitt Romney's speech last fall--commendable in defending Mormonism from the bigots who sought to use it to deny him the presidency, but ugly in its opportunistic denigration of secularism--garnered applause from the mainstream press, though little serious analysis of its content. Somewhat similarly, in the 2000 Florida recount fight, Al Gore deserved a trophy--and the presidency--for fighting for his rightful votes; but the speech he gave when he ultimately conceded earned the pundits' gratitude not because of any rhetorical brilliance (in truth, it was a disappointment), but because the narrative they'd constructed all but required them to cheer. Like Gore himself, they were fulfilling a part in a drama. Even Nixon's 1952 Checkers speech, though much mocked today, drew mostly praise when he delivered it.

One could see this same archetypal narrative taking shape last week when nabobs spoke of the Jeremiah Wright controversy as Obama's "greatest test yet" and a "defining moment for his campaign." A man in whom so many had invested such hopes was on the ropes. For the narrative to conclude satisfactorily, to reach its reassuringly familiar resolution, Obama had to be seen as "doing what he needed to do." And he was.

The subject of the speech, billed as a frank confrontation of taboo racial issues, also guaranteed an enthusiastic response. (The same was true for Romney and religion.) Media commentators have shown a profound skittishness whenever race and racism have come up on the campaign trail--especially the issue of differing in racial perspectives on certain issues in American society. Ironically, Obama's pledge to offer a "bold" recognition of the stubbornness of some of these differences was precisely what then allowed the pundits to stop worrying about or dwelling on them. The mere act of assuring his audience that racial divides are bridgeable, that the story will end happily, reinscribes the narrative of crisis and satisfying resolution.

During the Geraldine Ferraro pseudo-controversy, journalists squirmed when faced with having to think through the hard questions of precisely how Obama's race has hurt him and how it's helped him in the Democratic primaries. By absolving them from doing so, the speech came as a welcome relief. How could they not applaud?

--David Greenberg