It’s not much of a risk to venture that Barack Obama’s much-noted speech on his association with the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright not only reinflated his wounded campaign but — much more likely — sealed his nomination.
I caught his talk out of the corner of my eye on a southern Arizona hotel-room TV as I was packing up, readying to cross the border. And about three minutes into Obama’s talk, I had to drop everything and sit down on the bed to hear the rest. It wasn’t the tone of his rhetoric, it wasn’t the sort of soaring verbiage that I saw him use in Iowa or Nevada to hold large crowds of supporters spellbound.
No, it was the substance. I was stunned, transfixed, by what you might call good old-fashioned cognitive dissonance. What I was hearing from his lips just wasn’t consistent with what I would expect any politician to say under these same circumstances. It was neither the false, lip-biting contrition of a Bill Clinton; the stage-managed but fundamentally brash atonement of an Eliot Spitzer; nor the pathetic, deceitful denial of a miserable Larry Craig. Instead, I suddenly heard myself listening to a thoughtful, introspective intellectual who might have been, say, editor of the Harvard Law Review.
In expedient political terms, the Rev. Wright kerfuffle was one of those sporadic “tests” that pepper our round-the-clock news cycles and our media-driven presidential campaigns. Obama not only met the test, he scored off the charts.
Pundit Andrew Sullivan rated it akin to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” address. “This searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech is the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime,” Sullivan wrote. “It is a speech we have all been waiting for a generation. Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history.”
Even such stigmatized conservatives as Charles Murray couldn’t contain their praise. “Has any other major American politician ever made a speech on race that comes even close to this one?” Murray wrote on the Web site of the late Bill Buckley’s National Review. “As far as I’m concerned, it is just plain flat out brilliant — rhetorically, but also in capturing a lot of nuance about race in America. It is so far above the standard we’re used to from our pols.”
Obama’s speech came at the precise moment when I’d been mulling over his appeal to my generation of boomers. It’s been somewhat staggering for me to encounter the number of close friends of my own ’60s-generation cohort who, in the past few weeks, have been rather quietly confessing to me their own begrudging admiration for Obama.
And I do mean confessing. For those of us who grew up reading Ramparts, not Facebook, it’s somewhat uncomfortable, if not downright embarrassing, to admit to investing any real hope in a Democratic presidential candidate. It might be hard for the Millennials or even the Xers to fully grasp, but my generation was radicalized by LBJ Democrats more than by Nixon Republicans. We thought Jimmy Carter was a Southern conservative (and we were right). Bill Clinton, we thought, was the best Republican president since Ike (and I think the record confirms that notion as well).
But along came John Edwards and Obama this time around, and it was hard to deny that we were starting to hear some of the same arguments we had wearily been making over the last four decades finally coming from the presidential-campaign stump.
Not that we’ve been pushovers for Obama’s message of Change We Can Believe In. Coming to us veterans of the Gulf of Tonkin, Chicago ’68 and Kent State, it is a little bit like the Jehovah’s Witnesses trying to hawk the latest edition of The Watchtower at a convention of atheists.
But I know I speak for these same friends when I say you can now count us among the O-boomers. We’ve sipped no Kool-Aid, nor been seduced by focus-grouped campaign rhetoric, nor driven senseless by finely tuned speechifying. Instead, we’ve looked around and reached three simple conclusions:
First, that John McCain, whose personal courage cannot be denied, and who has had some distinguished moments in public life, now finds himself positioned in the American political system with little to run on except a platform of militarized jingoism.
Second, the election of Hillary Clinton would be an absolute guarantee of the political status quo. There might be a forward shift here or there compared to the Bushies, but the system itself would remain intact. And we are convinced that her decision making would, indeed, continue in the well-known Clintonian tradition of unmitigated expediency — as has already been more than amply demonstrated during her lamentable campaign.
Finally, we do not invest naive hope in Barack Obama. We O-boomers are, I fear, ready to be disappointed by a President Obama. It’s a well-worn reflex with us. But for the first time, in a very, very long time, we can sense at least the mathematical possibility of some refreshing change if he is elected. His speech this week served only as a geometrical multiplier.