Our hired band of brainiacs reacts to Obama’s big speech.

David Kusnet, former speechwriter for Bill Clinton:

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.


Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University:

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.

 

John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute:

In his speech in Philadelphia this morning, Barack Obama revealed that he is most definitely his own man.

Those who have found Obama's statements of dissociation from his pastor Jeremiah Wright's statements a tad studious must now be satisfied. This time, Obama did not rest with incendiary and divisive--words which harbor potential toleration (i.e. maybe a little divisiveness is healthy?).

He pegged Wright's recreational alienation as wrong, as stereotyping, as a "profound mistake," as founded upon a canard that America has made no progress on race.

It must be understood what a maverick statement this is from a 40-something black politician. In the black community one does not sass one's elders. One is expected to show a particular deference, understandably, to the generation who fought on the barricades of the Civil Rights movement. That is, to people of Jeremiah Wright's vintage.

For a light-skinned half-white Ivy League-educated black man to repudiate, in clear language and repeatedly, the take on race of people like Julian Bond and Nikki Giovanni is not only honest but truly bold.

A certain strain of black bloggers will be blowing their tops for a week, while some black writers of mature years will remind us in editorials that Wright's vision of America is more present-tense than Obama's speech implies.

Of course Obama softened the blow: and rightly. For people who lived under Jim Crow, indeed "the memories of humiliation, doubt and fear have not gone away." And given that one does not need to be a professional hothead to feel that race still determines black people's fate to whatever extent, Wright's views on race and patriotism, whether we like it or not, are a heightened rendition of a state of mind not uncommon among black Americans.

More importantly, however, Obama knows the danger of letting this background sentiment morph into histrionic utopianism which "distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change."

Obama knows that anti-whitey sermons are, in 2008, Sunday morning's gangsta rap--infectious confection.

I've been wondering whether the dust-up over Obama and Wright was mere political hardball or based on actual misunderstanding of black community dynamics. Obama has now clarified the latter, to an extent that ought to satisfy any reasonable listener.

As of this morning's speech, any notions of the Obamas as having sat in their living room on 9/11 cheering as the Twin Towers fell is indefensible, and should be dismissed as recreational blather of no more weight than Jeremiah Wright's.

 

Alan Wolfe, professor of political science at Boston College:

We reached out to several friends of the magazine to respond to Obama's big speech in Philadelphia today. Here's what Alan Wolfe, professor of political science at Boston College, had to say.

After his forty-six state victory and moving inauguration day speech, pundits gathered to recall that brief moment back in March 2008 when there had been a sudden flurry of interest in some intemperate remarks that had been delivered by President Obama's preacher Jeremiah Wright. "What was that all about?" they ask each other. The combined forces of a tanking economy and displeasure with the war in Iraq had so motivated the American public to vote into office one of the most impressive presidential candidates in years that the Wright dust-up had been long forgotten.

Will it play out this way? That is beyond my power to know; perhaps Wright's comments will have provided Hillary Clinton with just what she needed to stop Obama's momentum, just as it might feature in the Republican campaign against him should he win the nomination. What I heard today, though, was not a political speech in the sense we have gotten used to in this country. I heard instead a speech that, as much as it was about Obama and Wright, was also about us. Our politics does not quite know how to handle such a thing; campaigns are meant to tell people what they can expect to receive, not to ask them to understand, forgive, and reach out.

The campaign for the Democratic nomination has already gripped the nation for two reasons: It offers either the first woman or the first African-American as the candidate of a major party, and it has been as close as the last Super Bowl. Now we have a third reason for our fascination: We have been asked to reflect in the most serious of ways about the role that race plays in the life of our country. I cannot recall any leader or potential leader in the last two or three decades asking us to do that. I hope we are up to the challenge. I do not believe--nor, from his speech, do I think that Obama believes--that to think seriously about race we have to vote for him.  But I do think that when we address race, we ought to do it, not by running endless videos of people, black or white, who have said outrageous things but by finally having the honest conversation about race we keep promising ourselves--and keep postponing. Agree or disagree with Obama, I ask people who are less inspired by him that I am, but at least acknowledge that in this presidential candidate, we have a man of honor--and an honest man.

--Alan WolfeAfter his forty-six state victory and moving inauguration day speech, pundits gathered to recall that brief moment back in March 2008 when there had been a sudden flurry of interest in some intemperate remarks that had been delivered by President Obama's preacher Jeremiah Wright. "What was that all about?" they ask each other. The combined forces of a tanking economy and displeasure with the war in Iraq had so motivated the American public to vote into office one of the most impressive presidential candidates in years that the Wright dust-up had been long forgotten.

Will it play out this way? That is beyond my power to know; perhaps Wright's comments will have provided Hillary Clinton with just what she needed to stop Obama's momentum, just as it might feature in the Republican campaign against him should he win the nomination. What I heard today, though, was not a political speech in the sense we have gotten used to in this country. I heard instead a speech that, as much as it was about Obama and Wright, was also about us. Our politics does not quite know how to handle such a thing; campaigns are meant to tell people what they can expect to receive, not to ask them to understand, forgive, and reach out.

The campaign for the Democratic nomination has already gripped the nation for two reasons: It offers either the first woman or the first African-American as the candidate of a major party, and it has been as close as the last Super Bowl. Now we have a third reason for our fascination: We have been asked to reflect in the most serious of ways about the role that race plays in the life of our country. I cannot recall any leader or potential leader in the last two or three decades asking us to do that. I hope we are up to the challenge. I do not believe--nor, from his speech, do I think that Obama believes--that to think seriously about race we have to vote for him.  But I do think that when we address race, we ought to do it, not by running endless videos of people, black or white, who have said outrageous things but by finally having the honest conversation about race we keep promising ourselves--and keep postponing. Agree or disagree with Obama, I ask people who are less inspired by him that I am, but at least acknowledge that in this presidential candidate, we have a man of honor--and an honest man.

By Todd Gitlin, David Kusnet, John McWhorter, and Alan Wolfe