Four score and seven years ago… No, wait, my mistake. Two score and seven or eight days ago, Barack Obama gave the greatest speech since the Gettysburg Address, or FDR’s First Inaugural, or JFK’s religion speech, or (if like Garry Wills in The New York Review of Books, you find those comparisons drearily obvious) Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech of 1860. And, of course, the Senator’s speech does share one quality with Cooper Union, Gettysburg, the FDR Inaugural, Henry V at Agincourt, Socrates’s Apology, etc: It’s history. He said, apropos the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, that “I could no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother.” But last week he did disown him. So, great-speech-wise, it’s a bit like Churchill promising to fight them on the beaches and never surrender, and then surrendering a month and a half later, and on a beach he decided not to fight on.
It was never a great speech. It was a simulacrum of a great speech written to flatter gullible pundits into hailing it as the real deal. It should be “required reading in classrooms,” said Bob Herbert in the New York Times; it was “extraordinary” and “rhetorical magic,” said Joe Klein in Time – which gets closer to the truth: As with most “magic,” it was merely a trick of redirection. Obama appeared to have made Jeremiah Wright vanish into thin air, but it turned out he was just under the heavily draped table waiting to pop up again. The speech was designed to take a very specific problem — the fact that Barack Obama, the Great Uniter, had sat in the pews of a neo-segregationist huckster for 20 years — and generalize it into some grand meditation on race in America. Senator Obama looked America in the face and said: Who ya gonna believe? My “rhetorical magic” or your lyin’ eyes?
That’s an easy choice for the swooning bobbysoxers of the media. With less impressionable types, such as voters, Senator Obama is having a tougher time. The Philly speech is emblematic of his most pressing problem: the gap — indeed, full-sized canyon — that’s opening up between the rhetorical magic and the reality. That’s the difference between a simulacrum and a genuinely great speech. The gaseous platitudes of hope and change and unity no longer seem to fit the choices of Obama’s adult life. Oddly enough, the shrewdest appraisal of the Senator’s speechifying “magic” came from Jeremiah Wright himself. “He’s a politician,” said the Reverend. “He says what he has to say as a politician… He does what politicians do.”
The notion that the Amazing Obama might be just another politician doing what politicians do seems to have affronted the senator more than any of the stuff about America being no different from al-Qaeda and the government inventing AIDS to kill black people. In his belated “disowning” of Wright, Obama said, “What I think particularly angered me was his suggestion somehow that my previous denunciation of his remarks were somehow political posturing. Anybody who knows me and anybody who knows what I’m about knows that — that I am about trying to bridge gaps and that I see the — the commonality in all people.”
Funny how tinny and generic the sonorous uplift rings when it’s suddenly juxtaposed against something real and messy and human. As he chugged on, the senator couldn’t find his groove and couldn’t prevent himself from returning to pick at the same old bone: “If what somebody says contradicts what you believe so fundamentally, and then he questions whether or not you believe it in front of the National Press Club, then that’s enough. That’s — that’s a show of disrespect to me.”
And we can’t have that, can we? In a shrewd analysis of Obama’s peculiarly petty objections to Rev. Wright, Scott Johnson of the Powerline website remarked on the senator’s “adolescent grandiosity.” There’s always been a whiff of that. When he tells his doting fans, “We are the change we’ve been waiting for,” he means, of course, he is the change we’ve been waiting for.
“Do you personally feel that the Reverend betrayed your husband?” asked Meredith Vieira on The Today Show.
“You know what I think, Meredith?” replied Michelle Obama. “We’ve got to move forward. You know, this conversation doesn’t help my kids.”
Hang on. “My” kids? You’re supposed to say “It’s about the future of all our children,” not “It’s about the future of my children” — whose parents happen to have a base salary of half a million bucks a year. But even this bungled cliché nicely captures the campaign’s self-absorption: Talking about Obama’s pastor is a distraction from talking about Obama’s kids.
By the way, the best response to Michelle’s “this conversation doesn’t help my kids” would be: “But entrusting their religious upbringing to Jeremiah Wright does?” Ah but, happily, Meredith Vieira isn’t that kind of interviewer.
Mrs. O is becoming a challenge for satirists. My radio pal Hugh Hewitt played a clip on his show of the putative First Lady identifying the real problem facing America:
“Like many young people coming out of college, with their MAs and BAs and PhDs and MPhs coming out so mired in debt that they have to forego the careers of their dreams, see, because when you’re mired in debt, you can’t afford to be a teacher or a nurse or social worker, or a pastor of a church, or to run a small non-profit organization, or to do research for a small community group, or to be a community organizer because the salaries that you’ll earn in those jobs won’t cover the cost of the degree that it took to get the job.”
I’m not sure why Michelle would stick “pastor of a Church” in that list of downscale occupations: her pastor drives a Merc and lives in a gated community. But, insofar as I understand Mrs. O, she feels that many Harvard and Princeton graduates have to give up their life’s dream of being a minimum-wage “community organizer” (whatever that is) and are forced to become corporate lawyers, investment bankers, and multinational CEOs just to pay off their college loans. I’m sure the waitresses and checkout clerks nodded sympathetically.
Michelle Obama is a bizarre mix of condescension and grievance — like Teresa Heinz Kerry with a chip on her shoulder. But the common thread to her rhetoric is its antipathy to what she calls “corporate America.” Perhaps for his next Gettysburg Address the senator will be saying, “I could no more disown my wife than I could disown my own pastor. Oh, wait…”
Whatever one thinks of Senators Clinton and McCain, they’re as familiar as any public figures can be. Obama, on the other hand, is running explicitly on a transcendent “magic.” It doesn’t help when the cute girl in spangled tights keeps whining about how awful everything is and the guy you sawed in half sticks himself together and starts rampaging around the stage. The magician has lost control of the show.
© 2008 Mark Steyn