The Great Communicator had a number of speechwriters, of course, but pride of place certainly goes to Peggy Noonan, who authored his memorable D-Day speech, his remarks after the Challenger disaster and other comments that withstand the test of time. Today in the Wall Street Journal she gives us her take on the Obama speech—it’s one high practitioner commenting on the craftsmanship of another, and it’s the day’s must-read.
I thought Barack Obama’s speech was strong, thoughtful and important. Rather beautifully, it was a speech to think to, not clap to. It was clear that’s what he wanted, and this is rare.
It seemed to me as honest a speech as one in his position could give within the limits imposed by politics. As such it was a contribution. We’ll see if it was a success. The blowhard guild, proud member since 2000, praised it, and, in the biggest compliment, cable news shows came out of the speech not with jokes or jaded insiderism, but with thought. They started talking, pundits left and right, black and white, about what they’d experienced of race in America. It was kind of wonderful. I thought, Go, America, go, go.
You know what Mr. Obama said. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright was wrong. His sermons were “incendiary,” and they “denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation.” Mr. Obama admitted that if all he knew of Mr. Wright were what he saw on the “endless loop . . . of YouTube,” he wouldn’t like him either. But he’s known him 20 years as a man who taught him Christian faith, helped the poor, served as a Marine, and leads a community helping the homeless, needy and sick. “As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me.” He would not renounce their friendship. Most significantly, Mr. Obama asserted that race in America has become a generational story. The original sin of slavery is a fact, but the progress we have lived through the past 50 years means each generation experiences race differently.
She has the essence of it just right. And she also evaluates the speech detached from Obama as an individual and his candidacy for the presidency, which is the proper stance for any serious critic. The punditry today increasingly is a pumpkin patch. It’s filled with intellects of an exceptionally low wattage. In fact the cable networks have developed a predilection for clinical chatterboxes—people who can fill the silence with noise, without much concern for its worth. And most of them follow a simple agenda of carping at and attacking the political figures who oppose their political turf. This has proven a frightful degeneracy for political dialogue in this country, which, more than ever, needs to be squarely engaged with the major issues that the country faces. Race relations is indeed one of those issues. The hyperbolic sermons of a retired pastor, the misstatements of campaign surrogates, the bigotry of ministers who have endorsed a candidate are terribly peripheral.
As comedian Jon Stewart put it, “Obama spoke to us. . . as adults.” It’s something we’re not used to. Noonan makes precisely this point. “The primary rhetorical virtue of the speech can be found in two words, endemic and Faulkner. Endemic is the kind of word political consultants don’t let politicians use because 72% of Americans don’t understand it. . . As for Faulkner — well, this was an American politician quoting William Faulkner: ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.’ This is a thought, an interesting one, which means most current politicians would never share it.”
The use of Faulkner makes a far more profound point, but you have to know a bit of Faulkner to appreciate it. That was a message planted for the serious reader, and not ultimately necessary to a fair understanding of the speech. The primary rhetorical virtue of the speech is precisely that it was not calculated to help Obama win votes in a narrow and tightening electoral contest. It was a statement of concerns and aspirations for the nation’s political and social health, something that far transcended the 10-second sound bite that our political culture now revolves around. The message it sent was clear enough—that Obama cares more about the country and those issues than he cares about being elected. He may well lose the primary race as a result, but his stature certainly will not be diminished.
True to the message of the Great Communicator, Noonan dislikes the close—in which Obama painted a dark picture of the current America, awash in concerns of corruption, mismanagement and a darkening horizon. Any challenger presenting a cause for change paints the present as something dark, darker perhaps than it really is. From a distance there is no disputing the fact that America is a nation of unprecedented power and prosperity in human history. But the political challenge here is well focused, Obama reflects confidence, not doubt, in the nation’s ability to surmount its woes and reclaim a position of moral authority and leadership among nations. His criticism is targeted at the current political leadership, not at the nation. Still, Noonan’s criticism expresses a fundamental truth about the American self-perception and the need for any successful leader to craft a message in which the reaffirming overwhelms the critical. Taken as a whole, Obama’s speech accomplishes that. It is the sole extraordinary moment of this entire campaign.