A tale of two speeches

Posted: March 25, 2008 in democrats, election, obama, politics

I’ve been avoiding weighing in my impressions about Senator Obama’s speech last week about race in America, primarily because other, more eloquent people have already said what I’ve been thinking about it, often better than I could say it myself. That Obama is one of the most gifted, talented, skilled and inspiring orators of our time is undeniable. The man has a way with words that is simply unmatched by any other politician in America. Certainly no one in the present Administration is as skilled as he is. In every speech he shines. He talks to the audience as though they are intelligent adults capable of understanding the concepts he espouses, and that’s a rarity in the modern political landscape. It’s a rare gift that few politicians of any race or either gender possess (and one which Senator Clinton does not).

So when I heard Obama say last week the things he said about the state of race relations today, I was blown away. He could have chosen to give a ten-minute blurb filled with the usual platitudes and sound bites that the press and pundits would lap up and spit out just as quickly. Instead, he chose to be himself. He talked to us instead of at us. The speech he gave was intended to make the listener think. And that’s just what people did. America has been thinking and talking about it ever since.

Well, most of us. It’s also clear that the speech was so complex that every listener heard a different version of it. Today I ran across two columns from two different Conservative pundits, Peggy Noonan and Barbara Simpson.

Peggy Noonan is best known for her work as assistant and speechwriter for presidents Reagan and Bush Sr, and writes for the Wall Street Journal.

Barbara Simpson is a radio and television personality in the San Francisco Bay area and writes for online conservative news site WorldNetDaily.com.

I’ll let their words speak for themselves.

First, Ms. Noonan:

A Thinking Man’s Speech

And now Ms. Simpson:

I’m a racist, you’re a racist!

How could two people from, ostensibly, the same side of the political aisle, hear such radically different speeches? Because it’s obvious to me that that’s what happened. I think part of the problem was that the speech was intended to make one think, instead of just reacting. We’re so accustomed to politicians standing up in front of us and telling us what we want to hear, and treating us like children or well-trained puppies, that when one of them deviates from this expectation many people don’t quite know what to do.

It could also be that these two particular commentators make their living in ways that are similar but radically different at the same time. As a former speechwriter, Ms. Noonan is clearly skilled at using the written word and translating it for audience consumption. She knows a good turn of phrase when she hears it, and her column reads that way. The best part of her analysis, I think, is this:

The speech assumed the audience was intelligent. This was a compliment, and I suspect was received as a gift. It also assumed many in the audience were educated. I was grateful for this, as the educated are not much addressed in American politics.

Here I point out an aspect of the speech that may have a beneficial impact on current rhetoric. It is assumed now that a candidate must say a silly, boring line — “And families in Michigan matter!” or “What I stand for is affordable quality health care!” — and the audience will clap. The line and the applause make, together, the eight-second soundbite that will be used tonight on the news, and seen by the people. This has been standard politico-journalistic procedure for 20 years.

Mr. Obama subverted this in his speech. He didn’t have applause lines. He didn’t give you eight seconds of a line followed by clapping. He spoke in full and longish paragraphs that didn’t summon applause. This left TV producers having to use longer-than-usual soundbites in order to capture his meaning. And so the cuts of the speech you heard on the news were more substantial and interesting than usual, which made the coverage of the speech better. People who didn’t hear it but only saw parts on the news got a real sense of what he’d said.

Indeed. This was not a speech to react to. It was a speech to think about. Ms. Noonan’s analysis of it was a thinking person’s analysis.

Now contrast that with the shrill, whiny, “whattyamean, I’m a racist?” rant from Ms. Simpson. For those not familiar with her writing style, this column is typical. She writes in short sentences and paragraphs, and her columns are like a Japanese meal – filled with small portions, temporarily satisfying, but leaving you hungry 15 minutes later. For me, the one line that says it all is this one:

We can only surmise, but based on what Obama has done to race relations in this country in just two weeks, Americans had better take off their rose-colored glasses.

She means, whether she knows it or not, white conservative Americans. Those who, like her and Rush Limbaugh, have made a portion of their living pretending racism doesn’t exist and anyone who thinks it does is just a whiner.

She’s right, of course. They’d better take off their rose colored glasses, because racism is still part of American culture.

Maybe the way to end it is to elect the first truly black president in American history.

The next few sound bites are just as good:

The senator who presents himself as a young, innocent, idealist savior who would bring “change” – saving us from ourselves, correcting all our faults, making us safe from life’s vicissitudes and protecting us from world dangers by talking to our enemies – has turned out to be just another crass, manipulative politician.

It’s clear Obama is on the road to perdition as he continues to scrape raw the wounds of racism that millions of American thought had been healed during the last 40 years.

When the venomous, anti-American, racist preaching of the man who was Obama’s pastor, friend and political adviser for more than 20 years became public, Barack took flak.

He also he took quick advantage to give a major speech on race. The implication was that because Americans objected to the anti-white, anti-Semitic venom spewed by his pastor, we needed a lecture.

Yes, we did need a lecture. We also needed a gentle reminder that some things haven’t been solved yet. We needed that reminder because for millions of Americans, racism and negative discrimination are facts of life. If people like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright say things that shock white America, maybe we need to find out why they feel the way they do.

When people say things that shock us, it’s easy to turn away and dismiss them as cranks or crazies. It’s far more difficult to challenge them and open a dialogue. By the way, did you know that when Jeremiah Wright said what he said about America, he was actually quoting a white man? It’s true…

But anyway, in this era of sound bites and quick quotes, I suppose I’d better finish with one of my own. There’s only one question truly on everyone’s mind lately regarding Obama’s now-famous speech. Did it help him or hurt him?

In my considered opinion, after much thought and analysis, I can definitely and unequivocally say:


  1. Don’t we all look at issues from a subjective perspective?

    I dare to ask as UK observer.

    I am fascinated by the fact that individuals pick out the parts that first makes an impression or grates their conscience.

    I enjoyed the read and commend you on a well artculated article. Obviously as an Obama (not that it makes any difference being a Brit) supporter, I loved the conclusion.

    If you have no objection here is my link.


  2. Afrit007 says:

    Greetings and thanks for the comment. I was fortunate during my time in the Air Force to spend four years in the United Kingdom, and loved every minute of it. We’d still be there if the AF hadn’t dragged us back kicking and screaming.

    Your link is quite welcome and I will certainly peruse your blog. Thanks!

  3. Just being nosey, Where were you stationed! AND what’s your favourite beer?
    Four years is a long stint! Leave any kids behind?

  4. Afrit007 says:

    RAF Alconbury, and Guinness Stout! And no, didn’t leave any kids behind, I took both of them with me. My second was born there.