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Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope

Oh, my. It took me a while to write this, and I could take more time and make it shorter, but it’s probably just as well to get it over and done. If you want a better and briefer look at Barack Obama’s keynote speech, best to look at this diary entry, which is only seven hundred and fifty words, while my own ramble below is almost twice that. Still shorter than the speech itself, luckily. Anyway.

There’s a trend, in political speeches, to emphasize the personal story of the speaker. I think it’s connected with identity politics, at least in the sense that, as a nation, we want to place our trust in people, rather than policies. It doesn’t stop with the desire to elect a congressman who ‘looks like me’, which is (I think) often counter-productive. It says that the judgment of the candidate and the official’s conduct in office will be affected by their personal history, and that the personal history is therefore a good way to pick candidates. I think it recognizes that we all live in different (but overlapping) universes, and that understanding how a person views the universe helps you understand how she will react.

Anyway, from Bill Clinton’s “I never met my father” speech in 1992 to Our Only President’s “[My] background may lack the polish of Washington” speech in 2000, speakers are expected to introduce themselves to us, with plenty of personal history. By the way, check out the 1960 acceptance speeches of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon for contrast; they barely talk about themselves at all. I suspect the trend is fairly new in its current incarnation, but I haven’t done much research. Anyway, the where-I’m-from speech is de rigueur for candidates, and audiences expect it and want it.

Now, in fact, anybody watching Bill Clinton’s speech in 1992 knew about the man from hope, and anybody watching Our Only President’s speech in 2000 knew about the President’s boy, and anybody watching John Kerry’s speech last week knew about the Mekong Delta. Not so much Illinois State Senator Barack Obama. So there’s that. More importantly, Senator-to-be Obama did something with the speech, effectively telling us that “my story is part of the larger American story.”

In fact, he tells us that all our stories are part of the larger American story, leading into his next theme, American individualism. “That is the true genius of America, a faith in the simple dreams of its people, the insistence on small miracles.” This got a lot of press, as it’s couched in terms that Republicans have been claiming as their own: “people don’t expect government to solve all their problems.” In fact, he says this sentence twice. To me, it sounds awfully defensive, but it got a terrific round of applause.

Then there’s a muddled bit with his endorsement of John Kerry. In addition to a litany of ‘John Kerry believes in x, so he’ll do y’ sentences, which are a bit awkward, there’s a sudden paragraph about Seamus, a marine on his way to Iraq. This is a lovely bit—listen to it, if you get the chance. It’s got the Reagan touch: the details, his height, his unusual (but nonthreatening) name, his small town. And in the voice, affection, and a slowed, almost hushed tone on the kicker: “Are we serving Shamus as well as he was serving us?” That, ultimately, is how we support our troops, and he knocks it for six. Still, what is it doing in the middle of the endorsement part of the speech? Because Mr. Obama goes back to the candidate again, awkwardly, before going in to his third theme: American communitarianism.

A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.
I think that this appeal to communitarianism is what makes people love this speech. It’s not a very poetic paragraph; the rhythms and the sounds do nothing, really, to catch the ear, and even as a blunt sentiment it doesn’t compare with the great Eugene V. Debs statement that “while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” But it’s a thing we believe, and a thing we want to believe. As a culture, we are feeling isolated, distrustful and vulnerable; we want to be told we are better than that. And we are.

He claims that there isn’t a liberal America and a conservative America, but one United States of America. He does the Red State/Blue State business, and that’s effective, too. “We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States.” That has become probably the most quoted line from this convention (except perhaps ‘send me’). Now, Your Humble Blogger thinks that there are actual cultural differences between urban and rural regions. I am perfectly okay with people refusing to worship an awesome Gd, or with worshiping a weak one for that matter; I recognize that many people want the feds keeping an eye on the libraries. My own longing is for someone to recognize that we can be one America—heck, one world—even with profound cultural differences, and even if gun ownership or Little League or performance art occupy very different places in our own universes. But that’s me, and I recognize that Mr. Obama’s version of mixing the two together does a far better job of persuasion, given where we are as a country. But I digress.

By the way, as long as I’m digressing, Mr. Obama’s ear for gospel is worthy of comparison to Mr. Clinton’s. The line about an awesome Gd resonates not only because we like the phrase, but because so many of us have heard it so often, and associate it with our own church experiences, or even our own pleasure listening as songs with that phrase have evidently been recorded and heavily played on the radio in country, bluegrass, gospel, and gospel/R&B, and on and on. I had not actually known it before (I don’t think awesomeness is one of the Thirteen Attributes, and I’m afraid to me it sounds like suggesting that the divine is kick-ass, which is true and all, but y’know.), but it’s pretty clear that he got it just right. End digression, I hope.

So then, having blamed “spin masters and negative ad peddlers” for dividing us into Red States and Blue States, Mr. Obama calls on us to reject the politics of cynicism for the politics of hope. He refers to the “audacity of hope”, which in addition to being a great phrase is evidently a reference to a well-known sermon from Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., of the United Church of Christ in Chicago. Anyway, he talks about hope as a bedrock value of America (I called it optimism, along with Illinois’ Paul Simon, but hope is as good a word), and turns in a nice five-fold anaphora on hope, touching on the general (immigrants and slaves) to the specific (John Kerry, John Edwards) and finally himself. As far as I’m concerned, that one paragraph is the highlight of the speech, but then of course, I do like people to say what I already think.

And of course he ends how he began, with himself. He makes his own story, the story of a skinny kid with a funny name, the story of America, and makes it your own story, too, and brings it up to the moment with energy, with urgency, with passion, and with hope. We are with him, on the podium. He has achieved so much to get there. Who would have expected a State Senator who nobody ever heard of to get the top slot (non-nominee) at the convention? And yet, he still hasn’t won his Senate seat. He’s there, he’s made it to the big time, but he’s still got to go back and work to make it happen. It’s a perfect moment in the story, a cliff-hanger, and we all want to know how it turns out.



Good analysis.

And interesting to me that none of the lack of rhetorical and structural polish you mention bothered me, partly because I don't know enough about rhetoric to spot such things, but also partly because his delivery blew me away. I was deeply dubious about some of the things he said, and a little uncomfortable with some of the others, but the charisma was magical.

Also, I think that something you touch on in your comments is pretty central to what he did: he was presenting a vision of America that we want to believe. He was telling us the story that we like to tell ourselves about who we are, about being our best selves (there's a phrase I'm looking for but not quite finding, but that'll do). The bit about "in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success" and "in a generous America you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential" does that (I wanted there to be a third item, just 'cause things go best in threes), as did the parts about his story being "part of the larger American story," and "we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation," and the quote from the Declaration of Independence, and the "faith in the simple dreams"/"insistence on small miracles" bit, and on and on. He's "reaffirm[ing] our values and commitments" for us, and doing so in a way that suggests to us that we can rise to the challenge, that we're better than we sometimes fear we might be, that all the good things we like to tell ourselves about ourselves are true.

...Re the Debs line: I always thought that was a reference to the Gospels, but now I can't find the relevant quotation. Didn't Jesus say something with the same general idea?

You may be thinking of Matthew 25, which reads in part
[34]Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
[35]For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
[36]Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
[37]Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed [thee]? or thirsty, and gave [thee] drink?
[38]When saw we thee a stranger, and took [thee] in? or naked, and clothed [thee]?
[39]Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
[40]And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done [it] unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done [it] unto me.
Or perhaps not.

Aha. Yep, that's what I was thinking of. I'm now amused and intrigued that I managed to conflate that with a line from Debs.

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