by D. Cupples| Since the 2004 Democratic convention, Barack Obama has been known for giving carefully crafted speeches. Yesterday, he gave another one.
One of the speech's strong points was a spotlighting of modern-day racial injustices. Among the troubling aspects were a few seeming inconsistencies.
The Drudge Report has the transcript, which you can read here.
In yesterday's speech, Sen. Obama said that he had been in church while the Reverend Wright made "remarks that could be considered controversial."
Four days ago, Sen. Obama indicated that he hadn't personally heard Rev. Wright make statements like the ones that caused the recent uproar. (Huffington Post) Whether this conflicts with what he said yesterday depends on how he was using the word "controversial."
That's not the first time that Sen. Obama's words seemed to clash with reality. At the New Hampshire debate, Hillary Clinton pointed out the inconsistency of Sen. Obama's talk against lobbyist-tied politicians while an Obama campaign co-chair was a drug-company lobbyist.
Sen. Obama said, in front of God and the cameramen, "That's not true." Actually, it was true. (Boston Globe)
In yesterday's speech, Sen. Obama urged listeners to avoid the type of "politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism."
Just seven days ago, Sen. Obama's campaign sent a fund-raising email that accused Hillary Clinton of attacking Obama's supporters. That email was as divisive as it was factually questionable.
In yesterday's speech, Sen. Obama said:
"Some will see this [the speech] as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable [Rev. Wright's]. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork."
First, the politically safe thing is not to ignore it. Republicans will easily revive video clips of Rev. Wright's saying "God Damn America" in November (if Obama gets the nomination). Addressing the issue now was the politically safe plan.
I'm not sure why he implied that he wasn't playing it safe.
Second, part of Obama's speech did seem like an attempt to "justify or excuse." Before saying that it wasn't such an attempt, Sen. Obama spent significant time talking about the Reverend Wright's positives (e.g., patriotism) and the severe frustration that black Americans have endured for generations.
Whether it was an attempt to "justify or excuse" hinges on where the line is between justifying/excusing and arguing for mitigation.
Rev. Wright has undeniably positive marks on his score card (e.g., years of community activism). Black Americans have suffered grave injustices.
What's odd is that Sen. Obama has not made racial injustice a strong part of his campaign platform -- until now (i.e., days after Wright's words outraged millions of Americans).
For that reason, onlookers can't help but question the timing and motives behind today's speech. Was it about raising the nation's discourse to a higher level -- or pushing the spotlight away from Sen. Obama's questionable judgment in making Rev. Wright part of his campaign?
Instead of stopping at racism, Sen. Obama (who reportedly wrote the speech himself) managed to include a little something for everyone: a bit of history, injustice, corporate crime, hope....
I noticed one thing right off the bat (paragraph 3 of Drudge's transcript), where Sen. Obama referred to "this nation’s original sin of slavery." I heard those words before: on an episode of West Wing ("Dead Irish Writers," which aired in 2002).
The quote is spoken by a fictional ambassador discussing England's strained relations with the Irish over a glass of expensive scotch:
"For Americans, it's slavery. Slavery is your original sin. That and your unfortunate
history with your aborigines."
A commenter pointed out that the notion of slavery as America's "original sin" may not have originated with West Wing. Perhaps it is just a cliche, which doesn't seem fitting for a speech that was anticipated as historical.
TPM's Greg Seargent said Obama's speech "represents a massive break with conventional political precedent."
Does damage control qualify as a break with convention? Most politicians seem obsessed with re-framing and events so as to control damage. For seven years, we've watched President Bush take damage control to extremes.
Sen. Obama didn't go to Bush-style extremes in yesterday's speech, but he did seem focused on damage control -- while simultaneously adopting a new plank for his campaign platform.
MSNBC's Chris Matthews reportedly said that Obama's speech was "one of the great speeches in American history" and "worthy of Abraham Lincoln."
Some of Sen. Obama's words were impressive (as they usually are), even those that we've heard before from other sources. Given the inconsistency-tainted context, however, yesterday's speech doesn't seem historically gigantic.
Borrowing Gertrude Stein's structure, sometimes a speech is a speech is a speech -- especially when damage control is a primary motive.
Update: ABC News has a different take on yesterday's speech than the crew at MSNBC:
"Buried in his eloquent, highly praised speech on America's racial divide, Sen. Barack Obama contradicted more than a year of denials and spin from him and his staff about his knowledge of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's controversial sermons....
"Until yesterday, Obama said the only thing controversial he knew about Rev. Wright was his stand on issues relating to Africa, abortion and gay marriage."
Memeorandum has commentary.
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