It was “an extraordinary moment of truth-telling,” a “masterpiece.” It was FDR-/Lincoln-/Kennedy-esque—a modern-day “Profile in Courage.” It was “brilliant, inspiring, intellectually supple” and “searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal” and “big, big, big” and “sweeping”—“a massive break with conventional political precedent” and “a speech we have all been waiting for for a generation.” It was “glorious.”
In many ways, it was. The speech Barack Obama delivered yesterday was a testament to the power of words—words in the service not merely of “empty rhetoric,” but in the service, to borrow a borrowed phrase, of the fierce urgency of now. It was part political apologia, to be sure—a matter of electoral expediency for a campaign plagued by nagging questions about its candidate’s true attitude toward the United States—but it was also, and more so, a frank treatment of even more pervasive questions about race in the U.S.
And in that, Obama’s speech seared as much as it soared. “There have been times when we wondered what Mr. Obama meant when he talked about rising above traditional divides,” The New York Times noted in today’s editorial. “This was not such a moment.”
There have been times when we wondered the same—but, like the Times, we weren’t wondering yesterday. And it wasn’t just the well-known Obamaphiles, the Chris Matthewses and Andrew Sullivans of the media world, who were impressed with Obama’s speech. It was Pat Buchanan. It was The Washington Post. (“He not only cleared the air over a particular controversy,” the paper notes, “he raised the discussion to a higher plane.”) Even Charles Murray (yes, that Charles Murray) was floored:
Has any other major American politician ever made a speech on race that comes even close to this one? As far as I’m concerned, it is just plain flat out brilliant—rhetorically, but also in capturing a lot of nuance about race in America.
So, you know, bloom, meet rose, and all that. Many in the media, assessing Obama’s speech yesterday, found reflections of a former president in the potential one: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” FDR declared in his first inaugural. “Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.” The undercurrent of yesterday’s speech coverage echoed Roosevelt’s bold hope that, via the Obamic promise of reconciliation, “this is a day of national consecration.”
And yet. The glowing reactions to Obama’s speech—the declarations of the candidate’s transcendence, of his embodiment of change, of the convergence of his own story with our national identity—sag, somewhat, with the weight of their own irony. Because, while Obama’s words yesterday certainly had an element of “rising above,” they were, fundamentally, about digging deep: about moving from the rhetorical to the real, about shedding the lofty terms we normally use to discuss race with the hope that, in the shedding, we render that discussion urgently—perhaps even painfully—personal. In order to rise above the country’s legacy of racism, in other words, we need to stay grounded in that legacy, excavating and examining it. We need to transcend our very impulse for transcendence.
In that, the press portrayals of Obama’s speech don’t just miss Obama’s point; they largely defeat it. Which is made even more ironic by the fact that the speech itself points particularly at the press as a purveyor of stereotype:
Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism .
We can tackle race only as spectacle—as we did in the O.J. trial—or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina—or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day, and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words.
Howard Kurtz, in his analysis of Obama’s speech this morning, deemed this particular section of the speech “a not-so-subtle challenge to the news business.” But it’s much more than that. Obama’s words here aren’t just a challenge for the way we in the media should treat race in the future; they’re an indictment of the way we’ve treated race in the past. (And particularly in the past days and weeks and months.) Obama’s words implicate the press in the stagnation of our national discourse on race—and, as such, in our inability to overcome the entrenched racial divides that Obama unearthed in his speech with the spade of personal experience.