Obama speech opens up race dialogue
Will it stand alongside the great speeches in US history?
CHICAGO AND NEW YORK
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Several students of political rhetoric suggest Senator Obama's moving speech in Philadelphia Tuesday could stand with some of the great speeches in American history.
True, say some, the Democratic presidential candidate was forced into giving a speech that would explain his relationship to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., the outspoken minister of Obama's church, known for some antiwhite and anti-American sermons.
While argument continues over whether Obama's explanation was sufficient, his speech did seem to achieve this: It has sparked a conversation about race relations, one of the frankest Americans have had since the civil rights era.
"It was as thoughtful as King's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail,' with the added dimension that it was in a political context, in which [Obama] showed courage rather than merely doing the safe denunciation," says Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and biographer of several American historical figures. "He wrestled with the most important issue we have faced throughout our history, and he did it in a way that wasn't politically calculating, but was intensely personal as well as insightful."
Not everyone agrees that the speech avoided political calculation – or that it is destined for the history books.
While well-crafted, it was "high-level hooey," concludes Peter Robinson, a Hoover Institution fellow and Reagan speechwriter, who wrote the famous "Tear down this wall!" speech. Ultimately, he says, Obama tried to diminish the importance of his close relationship with Mr. Wright by backing up to look at several centuries of race relations in America. "But when you ponder what he was actually saying ... you see that he didn't address [his relationship with Wright]. He didn't make it go away," says Robinson.
He also wonders if the speech will hurt Obama in the end, since he's built his campaign on the idea that he transcends race and politics. "This shows that he's not different; he's not transcendent. He's an extremely intelligent, well-spoken politician, but he's a politician," says Robinson. "What he needs to defeat Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania and to defeat McCain in the general election are what we used to call Reagan Democrats, and I don't think they're going to go for this."
The speech generated conversations Wednesday at the water-cooler and lots of chatter in cyberspace as Americans e-mailed the text to one another and offered their own interpretations.
Some considered whether it was fair to put Wright's inflammatory statements about America on the same level as the comments of Obama's white grandmother, who Obama noted had "on more than one occasion uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."