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On Obama's speech, judging history in a hurry

After taking a mere two minutes to deliver an address of 272 words, Abraham Lincoln left the stage at Gettysburg to scattered, polite applause. He had just given the most famous speech in American history and redefined the political debate of a nation.

But not even he knew it. The Gettysburg Address failed to receive the full measure of its historical due until decades had passed.

Barack Obama finished what may be the most important speech of his career just after 11:30 Tuesday morning. By noon, some pundits were proclaiming the 37-minute speech one of the most important of all time.

That would seem hasty even by the standards of a news cycle that seeks the deeper meaning before the commercial break, that compresses time at the warp speed of a particle accelerator. But the persistent clamor of praise that has followed Obama's speech makes us wonder just what makes a speech great? And how and when do we know?

• • •

Part of the answer depends on the audience Obama was trying to reach.

Obama had taken the podium in Philadelphia (in a state where he is locked in a crucial primary fight with Sen. Hillary Clinton) to address mounting outrage over incendiary remarks made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the black pastor who once led the Chicago church Obama has attended for 20 years.

In roughly 4,700 words, Obama repudiated Wright's statements but declined to disavow the man who had sparked his Christian faith to life, who had married him, who had baptized his children. "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother . . . a woman who loves me as much as anything else in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street."

In general, the people most moved by the speech were "the punditocracy, those with a high degree of education," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

But the people whose judgment really matters, at least right now, Sabato said, are the "blue-collar whites who have been voting against Obama." They're not likely to be impressed with a quotation from William Faulkner.

The greatness of the speech "depends 100 percent on whether he's successful," agrees David Frum, one of President Bush's former speechwriters, and that won't be known until polls come out in the next few days.

For Sabato, the standard for success is even longer term.

"I doubt it will be a speech for the ages," Sabato says. "There were lines that will be remembered — if he becomes president. If he does become president, we will see excerpts of that speech throughout his time in office and for years beyond."

But words are only remembered if their authors triumphed. John F. Kennedy's speech addressing his Catholic faith was historic only because it helped him win the presidency, Sabato says. Likewise for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. "The civil rights movement won," he said. Had Lincoln lost the election of 1864 to George McClellan, his words indeed would not have been long remembered.

Theodore Sorensen, who helped write Kennedy's speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12, 1960, said Obama doesn't need to wait for an election to ratify the power of his rhetoric.

"It was a great speech because it's rare that in the midst of a presidential campaign a candidate is willing to be as bold and outspoken on such a sensitive issue," said Sorensen, who supports Obama.

Obama doesn't have to persuade everyone, he said, for his speech to succeed. "Kennedy satisfied all the doubters and critics, but he didn't satisfy the bigots," Sorensen said. "They turned out to be the single largest negative factor in his campaign. He overcame it, but he won by such a narrow margin."

• • •

For months Obama has steadfastly refused to make race central to his campaign, deciding to give this speech only because the Rev. Wright controversy was beginning to hurt his poll numbers. Why then did this speech, albeit one from an orator of widely admired gifts, register with such force?

It might have been its audacity. He did not simply deal with an immediate political crisis. He strove to push a subject that is as loaded as any in American culture past the "stalemate we've been stuck in for years."

"He's trying to tackle race, religion and politics all in one speech," said Janette Kenner Muir, associate professor and political communication expert at New Century College at George Mason University.

And while it was "a little long," she said, "it wasn't his usual style. One of the problems I have with him is that he speaks in broad, grandiose terms."

More than one commentator noted how devoid it was of rhetorical flash, only toward the end employing a rhythmic counterpoint of the words "not this time" and "this time."

"He's trying to distance himself from his minister who has that very dramatic cadence and style," Muir said. "If he comes back with that same style he risks sounding like a Baptist preacher."

Few seem able to quote memorable lines from the speech, certainly nothing as iconic as Ronald Reagan's full-throated "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" or Lincoln's modest, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here."

In writing his own remarks (as did Lincoln), Obama observed some conventions of the great speeches, however. He began with a temporal connection to the founding fathers and their work. ("Two hundred and twenty-one years ago..." Not exactly as lyrical as "Four score and seven years ago," but accurate.) He scattered biblical allusions and sacred secular phrases such as "a more perfect union" throughout the text.

What seems to have stuck most with people is not the language, but the details. They remember the thrust of whole passages: his grandmother's occasional racism, the story of the young white campaign volunteer who made a lasting connection with an elderly black man in South Carolina.

Many great speeches never include a single personal detail. The risk is always that they will come across as maudlin. Richard Nixon's martyr-like remarks about his wife Pat's "respectable Republican cloth coat" and his prideful refusal to return the family's beloved cocker spaniel, Checkers, are what people remember, much more than the preceding 30 minutes in which he bared his personal finances to the world, unheard of at the time.

Some of the strongest moments came as Obama acted as a cultural translator, explaining for whites the reasons for blacks' enduring bitterness even in a society that has seen measurable progress, and reminding blacks that many hard-working whites "don't feel they have been particularly privileged by their race."

"This is all, simply, true," wrote Peggy Noonan, a Reagan speechwriter, in Friday's Wall Street Journal. "And we are not used to political figures being frank, in this way, in public. For this Mr. Obama deserves deep credit."

Though critics pounced on what they called Obama's evasion of the key question — why did he stay in the church? — others celebrated him for his ability to criticize as well as forgive, to remain loyal to imperfect people. His church, he said, "contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance . . . that make up the black experience in America."

"You can make a good speech out of that," Frum said. "But a great speech would have delved deeper. A great speech would have said, 'discrimination deforms.' He presented his preacher's words as a pardonable reaction. A great speech would have said they're unpardonable."

Sorensen would have offered a suggestion if asked: Quote Kennedy.

"Kennedy chastised those critics who were attributing to him every extremist statement that had been made by any pope, priest or prelate for centuries," Sorensen said.

"I don't consider myself bound by those statements, why should you?" said Sorensen, paraphrasing JFK.

In the end, a speech's greatness is measured not only by the speaker or his words, says renowned historian John Hope Franklin, 93, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, "so much as by the people who heard it."

What will be accomplished because people heard this speech? asks Franklin, who considers it the equal of King's best oratory. "It's distressing to me that in 2008 we have to be convinced that race is still an issue."

Still, the positive response gives him some hope. "It's a sign that we are moving forward," he says. "We're just not there yet."

Bill Duryea is the national editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached at [email protected] Times researchers Shirl Kennedy and Will Gorham contributed to this report.

On Obama's speech, judging history in a hurry 03/22/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 24, 2008 3:51pm]
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