Be in no doubt, when Barack Obama responded to Reverend Wright’s “God Damn America” tirade he made the most important speech of the 21st century so far. It saved his candidacy. The wrong words at this time would have tipped enough of that important ten per cent, middle America’s swingers (if you know what I mean), towards Hillary Clinton. But Obama chose the right words, and successfully negotiated treacherous terrain: this is a masterclass in speech making.
At the end of this century, however successful or otherwise the Obama presidency might be, history will hail the political importance of these thirty-odd minutes.
Obama pulls out just about every technique you might look for in great oratory; it ticks all the boxes. And while the beginning shows that even the best can be a bit tight and nervous before they get something positive back from the audience, once he’s into his stride we see Obama at his best: powerful, mesmeric and authentic.
When the stakes are highest you have to bring out your best game and you are never more exposed than when behind the lectern. But the hard yards are run long before delivery: in buses and bars and coffee houses; conference calls, long walks and hotel suites. It’s easy to nod sagely and agree he nailed it afterwards, but imagine sitting with him, blank sheets of paper on the table, pen in hand, laptop flipped open: where do you start? How do you respond to the charge that your own pastor hates the country you want to lead?
To be sure, before putting pen to paper, you have to know what you want to address. Simply refuting one middle-aged preacher-man’s outdated views, but sounding off a bit yourself, gets you mired in detail; into a bit of a slanging match in the press; lowers the tone and levels the playing field; stokes up everyone’s anger (black and white); and you lose. Your consolation prize, the self-satisfaction of telling America that it has a long way to go before the race question is resolved, is a poor one. So this had to be about something bigger, and what could be bigger than the Union of the United States of America?
And by the way, think about Obama’s inaugural address....how many would have laid bets that JFK, MLK and Abe Lincoln would have been in there? But none were big enough for the occasion, and only two others were worth a nod on the big day: General George Washington and God, not in that order. And note the manner and tone of delivery compared with this speech. Obama was now Commander in Chief rather than Pretender, and he wanted us to know it.
So, everything in this speech becomes about the imperfection of the Union of the United States of America ,and the collective journey every citizen has to make, to more towards “a more perfect union”. Once you establish that, everything said has to reinforce the message. The other themes are race (of course…), change (for all…), honesty (being hard on the problem…), and personal credibility (or those ten per cent will vote Hillary…).
Bottom line? What Obama wants is for the audience to judge him on what he says here; to hold up a mirror to themselves and their country; and to aspire to be better. How much further from a narrow debate on the comments of one black pastor can you travel?
THE ART OF DELIVERY:
Delivery is one of Obama’s great strengths, look how he does humour at the White House Press Association Dinner. But this is the most important speech of his life and anyone would be nervous. Obama is not an exception.
At the beginning, and in fact for much of the first fifteen minutes when he gets a bit of audience reaction, Obama is tight. He overdoes the “thank-you’s” and fiddles about with the mike ,and is probably concentrating on his breathing and comportment. He delivers his first line too soon after his “thank-you” and consequently it has less impact than it might have.
There is always a distance between a speaker and his audience at the start of a speech and Obama is very good at reducing that distance. But it’s tough this time and the whole room feels the tension. The audience is at arms length, or further, for quite a while, because of the enormity of the occasion.
Obama is tight and tense, and it shows in his body language and voice: timing is out and he’s moving from side to side a bit more than he would normally. A bit quicker than he’d like, despite telling himself to slow down; reading more than he’d like, despite telling himself he knows this stuff well; tighter around the shoulders than he’d like, despite knowing that the cool, loose demeanor is his trump card.
But it comes across as serious, which is good. Because it is.
After about five minutes, when he starts on his own story, we get better timing: more pause.
But at six and a half minutes there is an uncharacteristic stumble when he speaks of “wide-eyed liberals” (he says wild, some could see this as Freudian). He is still nervous, and maybe knows he never got the smiles he wanted when he delivered the “’too black’ or ‘not black enough’” lines: he expected a few smiles or even a laugh.
At about nine minutes, where he starts “given my background…” we see better timing of his delivery; he is starting to get into his stride but the audience is not yet giving enough back: he’s still alone up there.
At ten and a half minutes he is quoting from his book, and on firmer ground, since he wrote it! This is in his DNA and although he’s kinda reading at the beginning it’s more natural and he’s a happier man.
And a massive pause after the passage is finished… more confident now! More hand gesture, better eye contact, cooler and looser: he’s in the zone.
And then he gets his first round of applause, after his line on “… challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American”. Listen to it, it’s a long pause that allows the audience in and it’s a long round of applause.
Look at him now, after this: contrast this with the first fifteen, certainly the first five minutes. Listen to the inflection in the voice; the range and tone and pitch and pause.
At twenty four minutes, when he’s talking about his candidacy he gets more applause, and he has to stop to get it: the distance between him and his audience is now as short as it needs to be. From now on we’re getting a motivational speech, which he is comfortable giving. He’s talking through the applause now, riding the waves.
When he gets on to option for the future, more of the same or “not this time”, again he has the audience applauding as he is speaking, and he goes with it again. The voice is more strident and full of passion and life here.
Masterful delivery of the story at the end. Obama gets quieter and more understated, more intimate, less animated, humbler: it is all about the story of an old black man and a young white woman, both of whom want to help him get elected. The end is very quiet and low key; he is your servant, not your master.
Spontaneity comes from either being so relaxed that you can trust yourself to speak extemporaneously one hundred per cent, or because you know your script so well it is hard-wired and you are reciting like an actor: on this occasion the former is too dangerous, and he didn’t have time for the latter.
So, at the beginning much of it is read. You can see the parts he knows better and delivers more naturally and you can see the parts that are completely new and he pretty much reads off the autocue. The bits at the beginning are the new material and have to be delivered as soon as he gets up there. They are also setting the scene for the theme of the whole damned speech: this is tough, even for someone as gifted as Obama.
Have a look at the end as compared with the beginning, and see how much change there is in the way he delivers. He’s been up there for half an hour and has been getting good feedback for a while: look at how the delivery here compares with the first few minutes; much looser and more like him.
There are flashes of spontaneity in the first ten or fifteen minutes, but it’s really after he gets his first round of applause after about fifteen minutes that we see the Obama we all know.
Much like having a good fallback position when you are negotiating with someone makes your entire demeanour better, knowing you’ve got the right material for the occasion gives you confidence. This is the right material for the occasion and that knowledge gives Obama confidence that increases as he goes through the gears, though as stated above he got off to a slow start.
Again I’d like you to remember that when you look at a finished script or listen to the speech on Youtube, every speech starts off with a blank sheet. You can come at the challenge of what to say in any way you fancy: the Reverend Jesse Jackson, being more of Reverend Wright’s generation, might have been tempted to be more preacher-like, passionate and pugilistic right from the start. Two of those would have been a big mistake.
Obama uses metaphors and analogies, as did Martin Luther King before him, but for the present day the emotional connections that Obama makes are more subtle and understated, more pragmatic and rooted in realism, than the rhetorical flourishes of King.
So here is a walk through the speech with a nod to the creative aspects that make it so damned good:
The Opening: Context
By the time he’s uttered eleven words, his title quote, we know this speech is about everyone, and everything. “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”
The opening line proper :“Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered…” nods to Martin Luther King’s opening at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we now stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” He is setting context and getting history on his side: he is also telling us he is looking through a much longer lens than those who might watch a few seconds on Youtube.
Note: There was no PowerPoint slide of the hall across the street on a screen behind him!
By the time he has told us that the union “could and should be perfected over time” we know that for over two centuries Americans have been trying to make better what they started right across the street, but were far from finished in that task: that the question of slavery was an “original sin” and was fudged, to be dealt with later, through great sacrifice and struggle. And this speech is about that struggle, “that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”
The Opening: Personal
The first part of the opening is setting the context. Next Obama addresses his own credibility and competence to be standing where he is right now, and why he should win the Whitehouse (or at this stage the nomination over Hillary Clinton). Bottom line is that the ten per cent of middle America that were undecided had to stay with him on this broadcast or he’d be toast. So he appeals directly to them, “we hold common hopes”, “we want to move in the same direction”, “towards a better future for our children and grandchildren.” And he says that their “decency and generosity” sustains him, but so does his own story. which is a belter. Most had heard it before but it was a good idea to tell a bit of it again, coming straight from the man, since it humanises him and connects him to a big group who have trod similar paths. This is every American immigrant’s story.
But there is humility, too, because “for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no country on earth is my story even possible.” Which takes him into a short piece on his candidacy. He wants people to hear this because there’s always so much noise and misinformation about, and this is a chance for him to set his stall (he kinda knows this will be on Youtube forever).
Facts come next, about the campaign: he has won in white states and built great coalitions. Then he takes on right wing commentators with the “too black” or “not black enough” stuff. I’m sure he expected a smile or a laugh or some kind of audience reaction here, but it never came.
The Substantive Issue
Then the Reverend Wright: We’re about six minutes in and Obama has now told us just what this speech is going to be about. But now he has to deal with the issue of the Reverend Wright, whose remarks are the principle reason he is standing where he is right now. He stumbles in part of his delivery here, then consciously slows right down: that’s how important this is. He brings it up by contrasting “wide-eyed liberals” (he actually says wild-eyed and tries to cover) with Reverend Wright (and by implication all those who are stoking the fires about his comments).
Obama unequivocally condemns the statements, but he goes further and uses fierce rhetorical questions to answer all the doubts his audience would have been asking at that moment. This is him asking listeners to hold up a mirror and reflect on remarks from their “pastors, priests or rabbis” with which they strongly disagree. No mention of Imams here, though, which is a deliberate omission as it would have given ammunition to the rampant right. Astute politics, as was aligning himself unequivocally with Israel over Islam.
He then puts Wright in the past, looking backwards through a prism that distorts his thinking and elevating “what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America…”. So Wright is wrong and divisive and his comments are a throwback to a past that we need to learn from for sure, he later quotes William Faulkner :“The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past”, but then we need to move on. You’d need to scratch right into his soul to find out whether he really wanted to say all these things about someone he loves and respects, but Obama the politician knew that the big prize would have slipped away if he hadn’t said them.
But he doesn’t simply condemn the man, ”as imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me”. And now we get some really clever stuff as he uses Wright's CV and his church’s record, in all it’s imperfection, as a metaphor for the story of America so far: the church he attended for years; was married in; and in which his daughters were baptised. This also allows him to quote (maybe the quote was too long) from his first book. He says later that “the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning”. A beautiful, poetic line. But a sharp and aggressive one that cuts to the quick and is hugely effective given Obamas delivery style, which is measured and understated. If he delivered like a black preacher delivering a sermon we wouldn’t listen so attentively.
He has us now in the palm of his hand, so he delivers a blow that is a real point-scorer: “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…” Every adult watching knows well that they have dearly loved relatives whose views and comments are far from politically correct, so we are all in the same place here.
Obama now tries to turn a big negative into a positive. The fact is he would rather not be speaking on this subject and would probably have ignored it if he thought he’d get away with it. After all, it’s much easier to address this stuff when you are The Man and not the Pretender, trying to get enough votes to be The Man. He says that “the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope it fades into the woodwork” and by implication is saying that he is being brave and taking the politically dangerous route here simply because it is the right thing to do, and it is the right thing to do it right now… Aye, right.
This is not true, but he does manage to turn the whole Wright saga from a negative to a positive, largely because of this speech. And he gets some confirmation from the audience with his first round of applause when he brings us back to the imperfect union, and the massive challenges facing the nation.
Obama then says there is no need for a history lesson, but gives us one anyway. This lesson is punchy, relevant and spot-on in the context of his candidacy and this election: and it was Wright’s comments that allowed Obama to say these things, because “This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up.” It’s the Immortal Memory to Robert Burns that gives us insight and teaches us something about both Burns and oursleves, rather than one that just churns out his biography. Context and relevance is everything, and how you choose to put your words together gives them context and relevance.
We then get a tale of the anger and bitterness and resentment that bubbles under the surface, that “does find voice in the barbershop and kitchen table” but is also “exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politicians own failings.” But there is hope, because many people made it out, despite the odds and even if they occasionally let off steam in an inappropriate way.
And that neatly brings him back to the Reverend Wright, partly absolving him and his kind and stating that we all have to listen to this, because his story and his anger is real. And then an important addition to this part of the speech, a footnote almost: whites as well as blacks feel these things, say these things. He is starting to home in now, to train his sights on the real target, “the real culprits of the middle class squeeze”, and ask the rest of us to do the same: corporate America.
“Your dreams come at my expense” is another elegant phrase that tries to sum up what many working and middle class whites feel. There is a huge dig at right wing commentators and maybe some shock-jocks who spout inflammatory nonsense or lies at the at the expense of proper political debate. This is confrontational, aggressive stuff - albeit delivered with some sophistication - that is trying to flush out the unreasonable and the narrow minded. And he wraps it all up in the American flag, because it is all about continuing “on the path of a more perfect union.”
“This is where we are right now”, is resonant of JFKs “But let us begin.” in his inaugural speech in 1961. Kennedy then went on to show the forward path, as Obama does now. He speaks of the African-American community needing to take responsibility by “embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past”, another beautifully symmetrical and neat way of getting his message across.
And now he specifically ties racial inequality to other instances of unfairness, doing a bit of a motivational sketch here, almost as if he can will things better by saying them (maybe he can.). And again he comes back to Reverend Wright, now his former pastor: he’s not wrong to speak about racism, but he’s wrong to deny the progress that’s been made, and that America can change. Hell, he says, look who is here giving this speech?
And back to the responsibility of whites, the acceptance that prejudice “does not just exist in the minds of black people.” We get a list of things that need to change. Again, this is unvarnished hard-hitting material for his white audience to hear. Much of the message is what Martin Luther King delivered over forty years ago, but cooler, more measured, less aggressive. And it’s all contextualised for us in the many things that are wrong and need fixing: it is also a very long way from a base discussion about remarks made by a pastor delivering a sermon.
Towards The Finish
Obama now brings us back to god, scripture and all the great religions. He is telling us that this is what lights his fire, and that religion will help us, “For we have a choice in this country.” He is saying we can go for the high ground or we can wallow in division, conflict and cynicism. From the spectacle of OJ to the tragedy of Katrina (he misses nothing and covers a lot of ground in just over half an hour).
In the section “Not this time.” We have another glimpse of Omaba the motivational preacher-man, borrowing from King, Jackson (Jesse) and probably Wright. He repeats the phrase “This time” and has four sections of similar length. This would imply he is coming towards the end, his peroration, and indeed he is. Of course it could have ended right here, with “this time”.
But it doesn’t: he pulls unashamedly at our heart strings with a final story, one that sums up his campaign, and is a metaphor for the America he would like to see, and lead (it also allows him to mention the fact that he spoke at Martin Luther King’s birthday celebration in Atlanta). There’s s gag about mustard and relish sandwiches that never got a laugh: no matter, this was a serious speech, at a serious time in his campaign. He probably thought a couple of his lines might raise a chuckle but won’t have lost any sleep over it.
This final story is about the choices we make, whether we are old or young, black or white, whether our issues or our reasons are large or small. He goes on to say that one story is not enough: he knows it is not enough. But he does say it is a start, then he takes us back to the beginning of his speech and back two hundred and twenty one years to finally say that “this is where perfection begins”.
And that's how the greatest speech of the 21st century so far ends.
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