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I didn't buy the idea that this speech would be "make or break" for Senator Obama. If he makes it into the general election, Rev. Hagee on the Republican side nicely balances Rev. Wright, and may overbalance things. After all, Obama was just Wright's passive parishioner, while Senator McCain went hankering after Hagee's endorsement. In addition, while Wright is an extremist, Hagee is an outright hater. In any event, I speculated a few weeks ago that McCain and Obama could come to a gentlemen's agreement to leave religion out of the fall campaign, and McCain, for one, might believe that a better idea than ever today.
It's a mystery to me who really started pushing the Wright videos on You Tube and in the "MSM," but whoever it was, the plan wasn't thought through thoroughly. Look how it's played out: Obama was forced into a corner and told his only way out was to make a speech. He didn't even ask to be thrown into this briar patch, but his enemy obliged him just the same.
Anyway, I'm not prepared to call the Philadelphia talk a great speech, but it's the closest thing on first hearing to a great speech that I've heard in quite a while. It gets a little narcissistic at points, and I could do without the now-standard uplifting anecdote at the end, but unlike many big speeches of our time, Obama's oration has real rhetorical structure designed for a cumulative effect. The parallel references to black grievances and white grievances, and to each group's "path to a more perfect union" were very effectively done.
Cynically speaking, he even offered a sound bite to conservatives, even to neocons:
[Rev. Wright's remarks] expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country -- a view that sees white racism as endemic, and elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologues of radical Islam.
But that's really as bad as it gets in the Philadelphia speech. Most of it is sterner stuff. Here's a stronger sample:
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze -- a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns -- this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
This comes two paragraphs after Obama warned that black "anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races." That's an example of the parallelism or balance I've mentioned. Perhaps the most admirable thing about the speech is that, while he was supposed to account for black anger as expressed by Wright, he made a point of reminding everyone that black people aren't the only angry ones, and that everyone has something to be angry about in this country. The object of his campaign, he hopes to persuade us, is to channel that anger in the proper direction.
This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.
I hope that all the factions will be fair-minded enough to acknowledge the quality of the Philadelphia speech, and recognize it as a challenge. One speech, not even one more speech can win Obama my endorsement this early. I'm perfectly willing to hear Clinton, McCain, Nader and any other contender make a comparable speech. In fact, after today, I think we ought to expect it from them.