Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama, Obama, banana fana fo fama

If you have no idea what this title means, it is a child's game we played with people's names when I was young. It just means that I am thinking about Obama today, as I was earlier this week. It is hard not to if you watch the news.

I note that up to recently, I have not had much to say about Obama in this blog. Like many, I was not sure what to make of him. I thought that Clinton would probably just beat him in the primaries, but that he would make the more formidable general election candidate. Obviously, though, he has been winning of late. A few days ago I said (paraphrasing) that the uproar over his former pastor's statements was the beginning of the end for him; that the major media outlets were missing this story, but that it would begin showing up in polls and would also be relevant in Pennsylvania,the next big state to hold a primary. I also said that I do not believe for a second that there is anything wrong with having friends or family that have extreme positions. It certainly does not mean you adopt them yourself.

His speech, made today in Philadelphia, deserves commentary. I watched the whole thing. I urge you to do so too, most likely on C-Span. You will not be bored even if you don't regularly watch the news and have no idea what Jeremiah Wright said.

Let me start with the positive. Before I could even think about posting, commentators were saying things like -- it was the best speech since I Have a Dream. One pundit, partial to hyperbole, also intimated since Lincoln. Presumably, he meant the Gettysburg Address.

There is no doubt, it was a great speech; it probably was the best since King's, although nowhere near as poetic. It spoke directly to his problem of decrying the statements of his mentor without completely "rejecting" him. It addressed the growing racist quality of the Democratic party race. He was measured, and articulate (sorry, political correct mavens) and asked us to try to understand the people we disagreed with, and to try to judge them according to their fears, while at the same time rejecting extreme remarks. It was overwhelmingly positive while dealing with the most delicate of political issues.

One of the reasons it was a great speech was that he treated it like a speech we might see in a movie, or that is reminiscent of the great speech makers -- he didn't start by chatting up the crowd, making obeisances to local politicians, and then saying how is wife was the greatest thing in the world. He started with a topic, developed his points and then came round at the end to the beginning (a more perfect union). It was, in a word, classic. And it deserves much of the praise it will get.

Now for the negative, or at least, less positive. We tend to exaggerate how great speeches are today if they are only good, or if they are made in dramatic circumstances. Bush's speech before congress made soon after 9/11 was called Churchillian, even though it was written by others, and had only a few good lines which were written specifically to sound like Churchill.

If you get a chance, pick up a book of Churchill's speeches (or, come to think of it, read my 5/9/07 post dedicated to him). Find King's I Have a Dream speech online (or, forgive the self-promotion -- no one is paying me for this -- read part of it in My Devotional - 1/22/08). The poetry and power of these speeches came in a different era, where speakers would not be embarrassed to emote in a flowery and melodramatic manner. The same could be said for the Gettysburg Address, which almost certainly wasn't delivered as well as it could have, had King or Churchill read it, but writing, not oration, was Lincoln's strong point.

Obama's speech was great for now, when almost no one really even tries to make great speeches anymore. It cannot compare to many of Churchill's, King's or Lincoln's best (he made a few brilliant speeches but many boring ones too).

As good as the speech was (much, much better than any Bush speech), for modern times at least, it may not do the trick. While listening, I wondered how many people would get a chance to listen to it. Most will get sound bites and hear praise from the networks and cable and criticism from talk radio (at least talk radio anyone listens too). My thought the other day was that the Wright flap would cause an even greater racial divide in the Democratic Party.

As much as Obama tried to put a salve on the wounds his former pastor caused (by old speeches, it should be said), his speech may just draw attention to the fact that blacks and whites still have different ways of looking at the world and America. A great speech may not always have a great effect, particularly if everyone is not pulling in the same direction. In this case, it might have an opposite effect. I'm not sure which way it will go, but the polls (taken at large, not individually) and the results in Pennsylvania will let us know. Maybe like many brouhahas in our attention deficit days, it will last a news cycle or so, until some politician pulls a Spitzer or some young girl gets kidnapped. And then I will be wrong.

Speaking about race openly and with good intentions does not always make things better, particularly in the short run. Purely as an anecdote, I remember making myself very scarce instead of attending an office meeting at which an "expert" was called in to discuss diversity. I did this because rather than "heal wounds" in an already incredibly diverse and peaceful office, I expected fireworks, and my sensitive nature would not handle it well (plus, I just hate going to stupid meetings). My call was good. It was, by all reports, horrible, and caused hurt feelings and racial tension in the office for a few weeks.

Obama invited us to talk about race, and to try and understand why some people say nasty things. He believes we, as a people, can handle it. I'm sure we can -- in the long run. But, I'm not sure we can do this in the middle of a presidential race when so many people are looking to be divisive. And certainly, not everyone will sign onto his perspective that we are, and must be, slowly moving towards a more perfect union.

As for me, the speech did have an effect, although I was not so swept away by the pretty words to become an Obama supporter. I have been unabashedly pro-McCain in this blog, because I feel he is the most moderate of the three possibilities, while recognizing that the squeeze the right puts on him may cause him to be more extreme in campaigning than I like. However, Obama touched the part of me which hates the Rush Limbaugh/Keith Olbermann style of politics where the adversary is always the enemy, and must be destroyed like Carthage, and their land salted. Although moderation is not in itself a virtue, in my book at least, mindless devotion to party politics is far, far worse.

However, I was impressed enough with Obama that I will make more of an effort to listen to what he has to say, and not dismiss him as quickly as I have before. I have severe doubts about his foreign policy (ironically, I note that his derided statement that we should attack Al Qaeda in Pakistan if the government may have just been proven to be official government policy). Depending on what challenges we face, it may not matter. The economy and race relations might, if fact, be more important in the next 8 years than Al Qaeda and terrorism. Crystal balls never work. Communism dried up so fast, you blinked you missed it. That's not a prediction, but a hope.

While recognizing that Obama seems genuinely dedicated to a politics that is barren of extremism, his "new" politics, he certainly has not done anything until now to keep his supporters from ratcheting up the racism. I haven't found the Clintons to have played the race card. I am sometimes astonished when they are accused of it, as when Ferraro made her comments and was labeled a racist. It is not enough that he says, I don't think it is so. He has to say to his supporters, stop. You are causing more racial divide, not less. However, like McCain, he must recognize that he has a base, and they will not want to be slapped down by him. Being a politician must be horrible.

Clinton deserves a brief mention here too. I have repeatedly stated her that she should be reminded over and over not to raise her voice -- it turns people off. My advice to her here is to leave this controversy alone. That means that neither she nor her people should say anything about it -- anything, other to say that it is not an issue to them. Every time she tries to remind people of an Obama weakness publicly, she is booed, or makes people angry. If Jeremiah Wright's words are to have an effect on their campaigns, then it will, but not because she lights it up with a laser pointer. Shut up and talk about your experience (such as it is).

As the campaign heats up I find that I am devoting more and more space here to politics, although frankly, I enjoy much more writing articles on Father Abraham, famous people named Moses, Santa Clause (you have to go back a while). Sometimes, I blog twice a week when I do this, and hope to do so a third time this week to include a political issue with an historical base that is also quite controversial, and may be coming to a head. While I research another few days, I am finding that my preliminary conclusions are surprising even me. Stay tuned.


  1. Anonymous7:01 PM

    I read Obama's speech instead of listening to it. Although I am not a fan of his at all, he simply is not experienced enough, I thought it was impressive. I would love to know how much of it he actually wrote. Notwithstanding, to compare it to King's speech is laughable. To compare it to any of Churchill's WWII speeches is blasphemy. Your right though Dave, the circumstances leading to the speech certainly add some power or gravitas to it. The fact that Churchill delivered his speeches while the very fate of democracy and liberty hung in the balance made them that much more impressive. I always wondered if any German’s during the war actually heard or read Churchill’s speeches and what impact they may have had on them?


  2. You know, that is a damn good question. What did the Germans think of Churchill's speeches. I'm working on something else this week. Can we have a volunteer to research that and get back to us. Fine, I'll do it myself.

  3. Anonymous12:41 PM

    Right after you warned your readers not to get swept up in hyperbole or exaggeration, you did so. King??? Churchill???? Are you on drugs? Puh-lease!
    It was a solid, well delivered speech that did not significantly mitigate his problem with white voters. No more, no less.

  4. Think you missed the point of the King and Churchill references, old boy. Read slower before you skewer me.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .