Why the Tucson Speech Succeeded

Because it was hopeful and positive, even joyous, rather than morose.

The standard comparisons of the past four days have been to Ronald Reagan after the Challenger disaster and Bill Clinton after Oklahoma City. Tonight's speech matched those as a demonstration of "head of state" presence, and far exceeded them as oratory -- while being completely different in tone and nature. They, in retrospect, were mainly -- and effectively -- designed to note tragic loss. Obama turned this into a celebration -- of the people who were killed, of the values they lived by, and of the way their example could bring out the better in all of us and in our country.

That is to Obama's imaginative credit. (Even as the event began, I was wondering how he would find a way to match to somber tone of Reagan and Clinton.) More later, but a performance to remember -- this will be, along with his 2004 Convention speech and his March, 2008 "meaning of race" speech in Philadelphia, one of the speeches he is lastingly known for -- and to add to the list of daunting political/oratorical challenges Obama has not merely met but mastered. 

UPDATE: I have turned off the TV after listening to various pundits moan about the "unseemly" cheers from the audience, the length of the speech, and so on. Here are two reader messages just now that correspond to the way I heard it:

>>The one thing that the MSM seemed completely baffled by was the tone of the speech and the rousing nature of the audience. This was a university audience. This is the one thing that Obama understood that most people could not even conceive. That the 18 to 25 year olds in that audience wanted to have hope, to be inspired, to wish for a more reasonable discourse. To look through the eyes of a nine year old and to see us (U.S.), as children, as we believe our nation stands for.<<

And:

>>I think Obama was elected mainly because of that hard-to-put-ypur-finger-on quality of leadership, the ability to rise above the everyday and give scope and vision.  But that got silenced by the demands of practical politics the last two year.  The original draw faded.  But in times of limited options, people will be drawn to the most consistent beacon.<<
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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