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Obama’s Speech on Race a Rare Event

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The scandal surrounding incendiary statements by one of Obama’s pastors was supposed to be the silver bullet long sought by Clinton supporters and other Obama haters. Finally, the specter of black militancy was to stick to the Teflon candidate. And certainly the reactions in the media and blogosphere have followed the predictable scripts: Those long dedicated to personally hating Obama were able to find additional excuses within the text of the speech to justify their crusade, those still seeking to concoct some contorted path to Hillary Clinton’s coronation nomination were able to find more chum from Rev. Wright to keep media sharks in their frenzy, and those conservatives who think all Democrats are extremists who vary only in their relative ability to hide it found more rationalizations to wave away the unusual and even remarkable portions of Obama’s response.

But none of the script-following droning can alter the fact that it was a singular event — a politician speaking earnestly about a controversial issue in terms guaranteed to provide enemies with reasons to condemn. I agree with Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan (hardly a liberal) in assessing Obama’s performance as educated, erudite, and unusual in American politics. I would add that Obama’s performance provides an outstanding refutation to the charges of many critics that he is an immoderate panderer pulling wool over the ideas of legions of moronic followers.

The heart of moderate politics is an ability to see the legitimate parts of views from both sides. In this, Obama’s speech does what none of the script-following, focus-tested, talking-pointed, sloganeering preferred by his critics can do — it acknowledges in very specific terms the legitimate concerns of both whites and blacks in regards to racial issues. It recognizes the pervasiveness of the problem in ways guaranteed to be exploited shamelessly by critics (Obama’s grandmother) but which highlight honesty to others.

Obama’s condemnation of Rev. Wright’s words coupled with his refusal to “disown” one of the several pastors at his church is a point too nuanced to fit well into the stark dichotomies demanded by the professional cynics and wildly spinning partisans that dominate political discourse these days. But it does correspond to the actual political experiences of more normal people — those of us who have family members, teachers, colleagues, and yes, even pastors whom we admire without demanding their political purity as a precondition.

When I first heard them, Rev. Wright’s rantings concerned me greatly. I worried that Obama might actually be the wolf in sheep’s clothing that some are obsessed with exposing him to be. But in the course of his speech on race, I found myself seeing something that appeared to be genuinely different in a modern American politician. I believe that Obama’s promise to attempt to bring together different sides in American politics is genuine, not just a pander. I believe this not solely on faith (though some professional cynics will surely continue repeating that meme ad nauseum), but rather based on the evidence in the speech itself — the undertaking of a risky attempt to appeal to the intelligence of the electorate and its ability to see the fine distinction between condemnation and alienation.

Will it work? It has certainly become clear that there are strong vested interests, both professional and emotional, in keeping the atmosphere of cynicism and vitriol untainted by moderation or tolerance. And those interests will no doubt continue to seize enthusiastically upon any detail that can be spun into more cynical yarn, attacking Obama as a charlatan and his supporters as morons (even while consistently ignoring the specific points made by both Obama and his supporters in their own defense — an interesting performative contradiction on their part).

But I’m not buying it.

And I’m not alone.