Today I feel compelled to talk about John Edwards’ speech last night, but I am continually drawn to the night before and Barack Obama. Indeed, with each passing moment, his speech burns brighter in my mind and heart. There were certain qualities to Obama’s speech that make it remarkably authentic and incredibly refreshing. For me, it is not that he is new on the political scene; in fact, it took me awhile to get over the idea that the Democrats had even selected him for this coveted spot. He’s young and relatively inexperienced (I know those are the very reasons why they chose him!).
Still, in a time when political figures seem to have latched onto notions of engendering a sense of possibility and hope – something that I believe is vitally important in public life and which I have been writing about for years – Obama did us all a great service.
While his speech had a decidedly quiet nature to it, his words reverberated throughout the land. He talked about hope almost always in the context of historical examples, demonstrating that it is rooted in something larger than yesterday’s anecdote:
I’m not talking about blind optimism here—the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t talk about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. No, I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores … The audacity of hope!
He discussed hope in terms of enduring American ideals – about the place and role of the common person, the ever-expanding circle of inclusion, the ability of all people to reach for the American Dream:
The people I meet in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks, they don’t expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead and they want to … But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. They know we can do better. And they want that choice.
He reminded people that these are the United States of America – that while our nation is big and diverse, we nonetheless subscribe to the notion of e pluribus unum:
Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America.
Even when he talked about his personal life story, it was not to brag about himself, or to ask us to like him, but illustrate that he knows in his bones of what he speaks.
My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or “blessed,” believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren’t rich, because in a generous America you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential.
Indeed, his speech, his words and his delivery, asked the listener to explore his or her own conscious. What kind of America do you want? How will you engage? What are you willing to think about?
This year, in this election, we are called to reaffirm our values and commitments, to hold them against a hard reality and see how we are measuring up, to the legacy of our forbearers, and the promise of future generations. And fellow Americans—Democrats, Republicans, Independents—I say to you tonight: we have more work to do.
We have much more work to do. We live in a time when far too many Americans have retreated from public life, and form each other, into close-knit circles. We don’t trust many of our leaders. There is a lack of social cohesion. But most people are good and decent. They want to try and do the right thing. They want to belong to something larger than themselves. They want to make a difference.
At issue is whether we will re-engage – beyond the current argument about the War in Iraq. Will we look beyond ourselves and think about our relationship to public life? The sentiments in Obama’s speech offer a path of possibility. They are rooted in more than nostalgia, more than a heated argument, more than mere rhetoric. They come from the history and story of America and from our own inherent aspirations to reconnect.
Three cheers for Barack Obama!