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Obama speech opens up race dialogue

Will it stand alongside the great speeches in US history?

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Others welcomed such a personal and direct look at race, and hoped it would advance the national conversation no matter what happens to Obama's candidacy.

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"I appreciate that he's taking the platform he's on to say things no politician has said before," says Keith Gilmore, a black man who works at the University of Chicago's business school. "Now politicians know to speak to people directly and honestly. We're looking at race in a different way now."

In Manhattan, Doug Mohrmann, an older white man, was less certain. "I think he adequately divorced himself from some of the more controversial statements," he says. "But I think 20 years of being with that pastor and 20 years of being with that church, and totally committing to that guy and to not have addressed that kind of rhetoric before…. It's just unacceptable."

Some fervent admirers of both the speech and Obama acknowledge that it was risky. It's unusual for a political candidate still in a primary race to be so candid on such a delicate subject, and it's still unclear what the political fallout will be.

Both blacks and whites are likely to be offended by some of his statements, says Theodore Sorensen, President Kennedy's close adviser and speechwriter, and an Obama advocate. The speech also reminded listeners of the racial element in Obama's candidacy, legitimizing discussion of the issue – all of which undercuts the notion that his best chance for winning is to make voters forget about race.

But Mr. Sorensen admired the speech for that risk-taking. "This was a historic speech," he says. "I don't know of any presidential campaign speech by anyone, including even John F. Kennedy, that had as much courage and principle and long-term importance on the most fundamental problem that has faced this country since its founding, and that's the problem of race."

Historians and speechwriters compared the address to Kennedy's famous Houston speech, in which he tackled all the doubts about his Catholicism head-on. As with Kennedy's religion, Obama's race is an aspect of his candidacy that he needed to address publicly at some point, they say. And in many ways, race is a more difficult subject to broach.

"We didn't fight a war over Catholicism," says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution fellow and a speechwriter for Dwight Eisenhower. "It was too bad [Obama] had to do this on the basis of his relationship with a rabble rouser, which was awkward, but he used it to make much grander points about race."

On the rhetoric itself, writers lauded the speech's direct, conversational language as well as its nuance and complexity. "It was a sophisticated and honest analysis of the problem," says Terry Edmonds, former director of speechwriting for President Clinton, who called it "one of the best speeches on race in the last 20 years."

Whether American voters agree is still an open question. Even those who believe the address is destined for the annals of great American oratory are unsure.

"As a speech, it was bold, clear, well organized, eloquent in its description of history and current issues and future dreams and ideals that people of good will all share," says Sorensen. "Whether the political strategy was brilliant we'll find out later."