Keeping The Faith

Like the America he is set to lead, Barack Obama's acceptance speech last night was a crazy quilt of rhetorical modes and verbal flourishes, seemingly paradoxical mixtures of policy and emotion held together and uplifted by force of charisma and imagination. In 40 very strong, often brilliant, and very moving minutes, Obama reminded how false the binaries around which we too often structure our social contract (peace vs. patriotism, individual vs. community, government vs. private) really are. In doing so, he solidified his claim on the Democratic party, and may have sealed his election in the fall (at the very least, he established that John McCain would be playing by his rules, not those of Rove and Co.), but he also achieved something greater-- he turned the night back on its audience, and allowed this moment of transcendence to be, not just about him or the election, but about everyone in the stadium, and everyone watching at home:

I realize I'm not the typical candidate for this office, I don't have the typical pedigree. But what the naysayers don't understand is that this election has never been about me -- it's about you. For eighteen long months, you have stood up and said enough to the politics of the past. You have shown what history teaches us -- at defining moments like this one, changes doesn't come from Washington, changes comes to Washington.

Change comes because the American people demand it. Because they rise up and insist on new leadership, on new politcs for better times. Change is going to come, because I've seen it and I've lived it. In Illinois.... In Washington....

And I've seen it in this campaign, in the young people who voted for the first time, and int he young at heart who got involved again. And in Repulicans who never thought they'd pick up a Democratic ballot -- but they did.

With neighbors who would take a stranger in when a hurricane strikes and the flood water rises.

We have the strongest military in the world, but that's not what makes us strong. Our universities are the envy of the world, but that's not what makes us smarter. What is better is around the bend -- that promise has led immigrants to cross oceans, and pioneers to move west, and to make women reach for the ballot box. And 45 years ago today, that promise brought Americans to the mall in Washington to hear a young preacher from georgia speak of his dream. People in America could have heard anger or submission -- but what they heard instead is that, in America, our destiny is inextricibly linked. That our dreams are not alone.

We cannot turn back. America, we cannot turn back. Not with so much work to be done, with so many children to educate, with so many veterans to care for, and so many lives to mend. We cannot turn back, we cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must walk into the future and keep hold to the future.

There were many things to like about this speech, especially the way it confidently responded to numerous criticisms the campaign had received from both the left and the right about Obama's supposedly vague "high-mindedness" (is that like being "arrogant"?). Tonight he clearly laid out policies on education, the war, taxes and the economy, among other areas. He also wittily defused-- almost casually mocked-- McCain's obsession with the "Obama celebrity" meme, by speaking in a heartfelt manner about his childhood and linking it to the hopes and dreams of other middle- and working-class Americans: "I don't know how John McCain thinks celebrities live, but this has been my life." The casual defusion, linked with the weight of Obama's policy specifics, simultaneously diminished McCain and added impressive gravitas to Obama's appearance this evening: I've wanted him to be President for months, but I don't know that I've ever seen him look so Presidential, so confident and cool. Bill Clinton said Wednesday night that he believed Obama was ready to be Commander-In-Chief: this was Obama's coming out party, and it was thrilling.

But not as thrilling as watching Obama open a can of whup-ass on John McCain. I will go to bed tonight dreaming of the night sweats Karl Rove must be having, as Obama coolly demolished McCain's maverick image, reminded us of the catastrophes of the last eight years, and forcefully-- rightly-- linked them to John McCain and his 90% voting approval of George W. Bush. Speaking of the Sidekick's sychophantic Senate record, Obama noted that "America can't afford a 10% chance of change." He smoothly made the case for McCain's cluelessness on, well, everything: "It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it." Talking with The Babe on the phone tonight after the speech, she was very impressed with how skillfully Obama attacked McCain again and again on policy without making it personal. I think that's right, and I'm also impressed with Obama's use of humor: his cuts were devastating not only because of their accuracy, but because their wit diminished McCain. The more the campaign can make McCain look ridiculous without losing a substantive and positive approach, the better chance they have of winning in November.

It was an exciting speech, even if it wasn't the full flight of rhetorical gorgeousness that we've come to expect from Barack Obama this year: in jazz terms, it was less ostentatious Dizzy Gillespie than Kind of Blue-era Miles: a bad-ass who knows precisely where to drop his solos and flourishes, and whose music gains from the focused minimalism and subtlety. But he still inspired the crowd, leading a couple of audience chants (one of which was built around, of all things, an Eight Is Enough joke), and linking this moment to past moments and leaders who moved and achieved: Roosevelt, JFK, MLK. But it was Bobby Kennedy, not Jack, that I thought of as Obama closed his remarks.

"There are those who look at things the way they are," Kennedy famously noted, "and ask why... I dream of things that never were and ask why not." Like the community organizer he once was (and still, in many ways still is), Obama linked tonight to us, to everyone, to every one who might be listening, worrying, struggling and hoping, reminding us that we are, at once, irreducible individuals and indivisible and overlapping communities. The lengthy passage near the top is a brilliant political move-- creating a sense of community in your audience and centering them to your purpose always is-- but also a crucial reminder that we are that crazy quilt nation: we are large, we contain multitudes. And those seeming contradictions and paradoxes can become the engines of our imagination, the seeds of our change. The "audacity of hope" still freaks some bloggers out, I think, even on the left-- it's so much easier to wallow in our hipster cynicism, or occasional, passive-aggressive calculation. But after a week of slow builds and brilliantly crafted new narratives about American possibility, tonight's Mile High love-fest was a reminder that there's a better future out their for us, if we dare to envision it.

Yes, we can.


pc said…
I thought it was a great speech...and an incredibly tough one trying to serve many audience's and purposes at once.

However, watching the video clips of the speech this morning, I wish he had a few more soundbitey moments in it. Don't get me wrong, he had a few very good soundbitey moments, but still, as I watch the news (a waste of time and, worse, energy on my part), I can't help but get annoyed that they cut up the speech and stop Obama short before he finishes his point. I guess it would tax the viewers too much to listen to more than 5 seconds of uninterrupted speech. Obama is really at his best when he moves to a slow build.

Like I said, tough speech, serving many audiences and purposes, but he did it about as well as it can possibly be done.

Also, I was worried about the stage set up as too grandiose. Then I saw it with the stadium filled, and it looked appropriate and proportionate. Actually, perhaps it was a little too unimaginative, since after a little checking I saw it's about the same as GW's backdrop for his convention in 2004. Somehow, Obama came off as presidential and powerful but not remote and untouchable as he stood alone addressing 80,000.

Excellent job.

Brian Doan said…
Good points, all. I agree that he had a lot to cover, and did it well. The lover of high-flown rhetoric in me wishes he had some more soundbite moments, too, but I think he was also smart to tamp that down a little and focus on policy specifics, because I think it assuaged some of the concerns supporters had (and detractors wanted to exploit) about his supposed "vaguness." And "a ten-percent chance on change" and "they need to own their failure" ain't bad. (:

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