Why Obama Never Said 'Not Red States or Blue States but the United States ...'

By James Fallows

Thumbnail image for Obama2004.jpgSeveral days ago, in my annotation* of this year's State of the Union address, I mentioned that I'd remembered Barack Obama having said the following in his debut speech [right] at the 2004 Democratic convention: "Not 'red states' or 'blue states,' but the United States of America." In fact, as I found out when I went back to the transcript, he'd said something subtly but significantly different.

A reader in a position to know explains one reason for this aural-memory version of phantom-limb pain. The line I thought I remembered is closer to what Obama had intended to say -- until he was instructed not to, by John Kerry's team at the convention, since Kerry preferred to make that point himself. The person who wrote to me added some off-the-record confirming details, but he pointed me to this on-the-record account in an intriguing story called "The Speech," by David Bernstein in Chicago magazine, back in 2007. The relevant passage:

During one practice session, a Kerry speechwriter interrupted to say that Obama would need to rephrase or cut one of the lines from his speech because it was too similar to a line in Kerry's acceptance remarks. The line in question was the climax to Obama's famous passage on the red-states, blue-states divide. That passage, as Obama delivered it, reads: "The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states-red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states." Axelrod says Obama had originally written the passage to end with something like, "We're not red states and blue states; we're all Americans, standing up together for the red, white, and blue." But to satisfy Kerry's speechwriters, Axelrod says, Obama grudgingly cut out the line. A transcript of Kerry's competing text reads: "Maybe some just see us divided into those red states and blue states, but I see us as one America: red, white, and blue."

After the rehearsal ended, Obama was furious. "That fucker is trying to steal a line from my speech," he griped to Axelrod in the car on the way back to their hotel, according to another campaign aide who was there but asked to remain anonymous. Axelrod says he does not recollect exactly what Obama said to him. "He was unhappy about it, yeah," he says, but adds that Obama soon cooled down. "Ultimately, his feeling was: They had given him this great opportunity; who was he to quibble over one line?"  

The Bernstein story is full of nuggets like this that are all the more fascinating in retrospect. Here is one that really caught my eye, since I had remarked on Obama's use of exactly this "surfing" technique at the end of this latest SOTU (see note "ci-87").

Next, Obama had to master a technique known in professional public-speaking circles as "surfing" or "riding" the applause. [Speech consultant Michael] Sheehan explains how it works: "Because people at home don't hear when there's a big burst of applause-you hear it minimally in the background-speakers have to talk over the applause; otherwise there's long gaps of silence. People are clapping but you can't hear it at home-it's like, sentence-pause-sentence-pause-sentence-pause. It's just deadly."

While I'm at it, Andrew Sprung writes in with a parsing of the speech that makes sense to me. He starts with my remark that Obama is famously "eloquent" but not in a way that can be reduced to quotes or phrases (emphasis added):

1) Re that strange absence of memorable phrases: it's not just balanced by one strength, it's book-ended between two: conceptual complexity/coherence on the macro side, and cadence on the sub-micro. At least in 2007/2008, less so now, Obama's speeches were musical, hinging on repeat phrases (yes we can) and on the simplest of rhetorical devices, various forms of parallel structure, e.g. anaphora, the repetition of beginning words (also a lot of parallel phrasings in series -- "A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin" etc.).  It was no accident that Will.i.am was able to set one of his speeches to music to some effect.
 
2) What are some of those endlessly repeated ideas that stitch his speeches together? A top of the head list:
 
a) Prosperity is only sustainable if it's shared
b) Democratic government is a commitment to shared prosperity
c) At intervals, the American people demand and get new commitments to extend opportunity to excluded groups and to expand investment in shared prosperity
d) That historical process described in c) expresses a drive to fulfill the promises embedded in the country's documents -- and those documents triggered that drive both by articulating "self evident" truths of universal appeal and by creating a government machinery to channel the popular will. The drive to fulfill those promises is the never-ending quest for a 'more perfect union.'
e) Over time, the will of the people, expressed through democratic processes, will bend toward justice, toward provision of the rights laid out in the Declaration. That is the source of the e pluribus unum that Obama made his bones by affirming in 2004.
f) The principles articulated in the Declaration are the political expression of universal values professed by all major religions: I am my brother's keeper, sister's keeper, etc.  Political, in that by extending those values to "all men," they challenge the polity to expand the circle of those encompassed by the moral laws of the community -- basically, to extend them to everyone  -- without the carapace of a body of specific observances or doctrinal beliefs that divide the faithful from the infidels.
 
 It's a highly idealized view of American history, with a Hegelian/Fukuyaman undercurrent: the will of the people, channeled and unleashed by democracy, will tend toward ever increasing prosperity and progress and freedom. Idealized but basically right, I think -- if the period of growing inequality and government dysfunction we're in turns out to be cyclical and temporary rather than a marker of decline.

I agree entirely about the musical, and also preacherly, quality of Obama's speeches at their most "rhetorical." That's how "they deserve a vote" worked in this latest speech. Nothing memorable about those words, but he used them as if in a song or poem.


UPDATE: Another reader complicates the story thus:
I think the "misremembering" of the red&blue states quote, comes exactly from obama reusing and refining the the same ideas.

he actually used the quote you remembered in a later speech. his 2008 victory-speech:

"Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and always will be, the United States of America."
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* These annotated speeches are my version of an Advent Calendar, with lots of little windows to open -- or like the "Easter egg" feature in some software. I figure that someone has to notice the countless decisions, the grace notes, and the compromises that go into a performance like this speech.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/02/why-obama-never-said-not-red-states-or-blue-states-but-the-united-states/273253/