Magazine | April 6, 2015, Issue

Obama at Selma

The president’s speech was long on rhetoric but short on principle

President Barack Obama’s speech in Selma, Ala., on the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” voting-rights march drew glowing reviews, with some commentators hailing it as the greatest speech of his presidency.

It was certainly a vigorous performance, with some genuinely moving moments. Given that in his first term alone Obama delivered 2,039 speeches or remarks, and continues to add about 500 a year, however, it would be hard for anyone to say which was his best. If that seems like a lot of speechifying, it is — more than a speech a day, far more than even someone with an unnatural interest in Obama’s rhetoric could possibly appreciate. His favorite predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, gave fewer than 20 public speeches a year, most of them short and informal.

We live in a different age, of course, when talk is cheap and presidential talk grows cheaper every day. There is no Say’s law of political oratory: Supply does not create its own demand. The more a president talks, the less people tend to listen. Back in the Renaissance, Pico della Mirandola managed a single Oration on the Dignity of Man; several thousand orations by the president on the dignity of man and the perfidy of Republicans tend to pale in comparison. Still, Obama’s speech in Selma is among his better efforts, one devoted to encapsulating the themes of his administration (one could almost say, his life) so far, and for those reasons it repays a little attention.

This wasn’t Obama’s first oratorical flight commemorating Bloody Sunday, you may recall. That was in 2007, when, as a fledgling presidential candidate, he spoke at Selma’s Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was eager to distinguish himself from the “first black president,” Bill Clinton, whose wife was (then as now) the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. For the same reason, Obama was eager to prove that he, the son of a white mother and a black father, was authentic enough to walk in Martin Luther King’s footsteps and to deserve his self-proclaimed role as a leader of the next generation of the civil-rights movement, playing Joshua to MLK’s Moses. “Don’t tell me I’m not coming home when I come to Selma, Alabama,” he insisted.

Obama had more charm then, easily upstaging Hillary by denouncing his generation’s materialism (the height of its ambition was trying to “get some of that Oprah money,” he said) and telling stories of his connection to the Moses generation so implausible that they would have made a Clinton blush, assuming that a Clinton can blush. The most notorious was his claim that it was word of the great deeds at Selma that had inspired his parents to get together and have their biracial son. As several of his biographers pointed out, Barack was born in 1961; Selma happened in 1965.

This year’s commemoration had a different purpose. Most obviously, Obama’s speech was a riposte to Rudy Giuliani’s recent questioning of his love of country — only the latest, complained the president, of those “feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others.” Predictably, the refutation attempted to show that Giuliani was downright un-American to say Obama didn’t love America, and that no one who has spoken in Selma twice could possibly be unpatriotic, because what happened in Selma is what America is all about. The discussion of patriotism led easily to consideration of America’s meaning, which is what gave the speech its larger significance.

According to Obama, Rudy’s view — he didn’t mention him specifically, which encouraged the implication that this was the larger Republican and conservative view — holds that patriotism requires little more than “singing [America’s] praises,” clinging to the past as a kind of “museum or static monument,” and above all “avoiding uncomfortable truths” about the suppression of African Americans, women, Latinos, Asian Americans, gays, and Americans with disabilities. Obama suggested that the troubles in Ferguson, Mo., offer an unhappy glimpse backward into America before Selma, a country of “stock photos” and “airbrushed history.”

By contrast, the real America is, now more than ever, a land of hope and change, forged from one “clash of wills” after another over the meaning of America. For there could hardly be, Obama declared, “a greater form of patriotism” than the belief “that America is not yet finished . . . that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals.”

But what are those ideals? To answer this key question, Obama resorted to what might be termed, in Chinese Communist parlance, the Three We’s. He emphasized them in dramatic fashion:

“We shall overcome.”

“We the People . . . in order to form a more perfect union . . .”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .”

There comes a point in almost every Obama speech at which it becomes apparent, especially if one is reading rather than merely listening, that his intention is not so much to persuade as to outsmart his audience. We have reached that point in his Selma address.

To most Americans, “We shall overcome” means that even entrenched injustices are vulnerable to a popular appeal to our highest principles, along the lines, say, of MLK’s appeal to the “promissory note” of the Declaration of Independence. For Obama it signifies  an appeal not so much to our love of justice as to “the daring of America’s character,” our fondness for “the occasional disruption,” our will to “shape our own destiny.” That is why the other two We’s ceased almost immediately to have any determinate meaning. “They are a living thing, a call to action,” he asserted, in service to the circular ideal that “America is a constant work in progress,” an experiment in collective and continual self-transformation. To deny this, and to deny that America has made progress in its fight against endemic racism, would be “to rob us of our own agency,” the fancy, postmodern term for freedom of the will.

One is not surprised, therefore, to discover on the final page of the speech a quiet but revealing change in the Three We’s. Obama reintroduced them by emphasizing that “the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’” Then came the sleight-of-hand. “We the People” reappeared. So did “We shall overcome,” now in central place. But “We hold these truths . . .” dropped out, replaced by “Yes we can,” Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan.

He cut the Declaration of Independence’s mighty affirmation of human nature, human equality, and human freedom in favor of his own affirmation of our ability to own the future, to remake the world — including the moral world — as we will. That is why “we” is more “powerful” than words such as “truths,” “self-evident,” “equal,” “Creator,” “unalienable,” “rights,” “life,” “liberty,” “pursuit of Happiness,” or even “consent.” Instead, Obama praised the “American instinct” for winning the “clash of wills,” for coming together to shape the nation’s course, for daring, for “action” that makes for “progress.” Mercifully, he spared us the “audacity of hope,” but that is what he meant.

He recommended to American citizens a certain kind of “moral imagination” attuned not to the permanent possibilities of human nature but to “the fierce urgency of now.” Though his masterly appropriation of American symbols such as the Constitution and the Declaration is a key part of his audacity, Obama always pours new meaning into the old bottles. Self-evident truths inevitably yield to “uncomfortable” ones. Principles yield to our “instinct” for hope and change. For America, he averred, is “born of change,” something quite different from our being “conceived in liberty” and dedicated to that moral proposition he so casually shoved aside. “We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it,” because the future will always be more glorious than the past. “We don’t fear the future; we grab for it,” always in the spirit of rebellious youth who lack experience as well as habits of reflection.

In Obama’s moral imagination, it is always the Sixties; and those who are “young and fearless at heart,” who are “unconstrained by habits and conventions” and “unencumbered by what is and ready to seize what ought to be,” are unequivocally heroes. Alas, it was not so. But to justify grabbing for the future, he has to imagine it so, whether it was how the spirit of Selma brought his parents together, or, as he claimed this time, that Selma led “young people behind the Iron Curtain” to “eventually tear down a wall.” Ronald Reagan? Margaret Thatcher? Pope John Paul II? NATO? Decades of anti-Communist foreign policy? No, it was the kids who did it, his “fellow marchers,” as he saluted them, indiscriminately sweeping together draft dodgers and civil-rights martyrs.

The protest at Selma 50 years ago was indeed a noble chapter in America’s long and unending struggle to live up to its own principles. That story, shorn of vanity and romanticism, deserves to be commemorated in a great presidential speech. This was not it.

– Mr. Kesler is the editor of the Claremont Review of Books and a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. He is the author of I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.

Charles R. Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is the editor of the Claremont Review of Books.

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