The Corner

Politics & Policy

Obama at Selma: A Beautifully Crafted Speech

There were all sorts of danger signs in Barack’s Obama’s speech in Selma Saturday, most of them involving subtle, deliberate, effective shifts in emphasis and word usage in ways that promote wrongful interpretations of the American experiment. Obama has done this for years, especially in his emphasis on an America that is always becoming more true to what he claims are its real ideals — ideals which, when parsed by Obama, always lead to more collectivism.

But I don’t have the heart right now to pick apart the speech in detail in order to explain those signs (although his tendentious claims about alleged vote suppression in modern America continue to be particularly obnoxious, and would merit response under other circumstances).

For anybody who appreciates good writing, Obama’s speech was a masterpiece. It held tightly to a central theme. It carefully built its case. It used soaring language when appropriate, which was often, but it never did the Icarus thing of soaring so high that it risked a crash landing. It did appeal to much of what’s best in America (even when over-emphasizing, especially between the lines, our alleged faults). And its pacing and its punch were both powerful.

Even some of the more predictable passages had a grace, as in this one passage that flirted with boilerplate but did rise above it, largely because, in this one passage at least, every word was true and fitting:

The Americans who crossed this bridge were not physically imposing. But they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation. They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence, and countless daily indignities — but they didn’t seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before. 

What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible; that love and hope can conquer hate.

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post has published the speech in its entirety. Read it yourself

Thank goodness Obama isn’t always so effective, but instead is so often self-referential and pedantic — because what he is usually pushing is flat-out bad stuff. But here, he hit his best, and in most respects his message was not just well crafted, but well targeted. And fully and admirably presidential, in the best sense of that word.

The authorities at Selma 50 years ago were as wrong as wrong can be. The marchers, in their central aim and in their behavior, were indeed acting nobly. Their courage did lead to a far better America, thank God. Living or dead, they deserve all the honor being bestowed upon them on the 50th anniversary of their fateful, spirit-filled march across that bridge.


The Latest