I'm inclined to see it as a potential pivot in our politics and culture, but it's obviously too soon to know. Today, I have been trying to find fault in it, and can't. I've read so many of your emails this past week I know some of you would have raised a pointed critique if it were plausible. None has appeared. And then I come across an email that reveals a depth of understanding you rarely find among professional pundits.
A reader writes:
I think we've just seen how a master works. I tend to be lukewarm on most of Obama's speeches because, unlike Bill Clinton, he can't really sustain the "this is worth hearing, America!" impetus unless he really crafts the speech well. He's not really an applause-line speaker (though that does seem to be what he aims for most of the time), but a Kennedy-esque "coiner" whose greatest strength is the philosophy of his phraseology. Lines like "We are the ones we have been waiting for" make you pause, think, reflect - not stand up and cheer, necessarily - and stick with you well beyond the speech and even the context. When Obama doesn't do that, when he's just lecturing or doing his "fired up, ready to go" bit, he's really not particularly great.
But what Obama did in Tucson was a magic trick.
For one thing, he was able to maintain the gravitas of his message not only despite the crowd, but at times even heighten it because of the crowd--such as when he sort of laughed about how the guys tackled Loughner, as though it was such a heroic act that even he couldn't believe it, turning a routine ceremonial thanks into something more personal. (He also managed to maintain his tempo evenly throughout the 30 minutes, which is difficult to do even if you don't have impromptu cheers interrupting you and urging you in a campaign-style atmosphere). For a speech that (presumably) wasn't designed for a pep-memorial, he made it work remarkably well.
Secondly, he kept a fine balance between addressing the victims and addressing the nation--it would have been easy for this to turn into a "look at me, I have compassion for normal people" photo-op, and on the flip side, have it be a crass political speech using the dead as cover.
But if you look at the speech as a whole, it's truly remarkable what an illusion Obama pulled off. Even as I was listening to it, I was somewhat perturbed by Obama's theme on "rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame"--a tacit rebuke of Democrats' criticism of Sarah Palin, despite the fact that no Democrat of any consequence has actually assigned the blame on anyone but Loughner; if we cannot scream at the top of our lungs at someone who is, for whatever reason or intention, whatever effect or consequence, indicating that people be "targeted" by the masquerade of a gun-sight, then what sort of healing can be expected when the eliminative harm-mongers can scream at the heal-mongers all they want?
Yet as Obama's speech unfolded, realize what he did: he led, by example. His speech was about community, brotherhood, love, understanding, listening, caring, healing, and yes, hope--all the things that are anathema to the world-view the Palinites are trying to espouse. Obama effectively took the rug out from under them, baring to the American people the soul of this Stalin, this Hitler, this death-panelist, and showing us that he is none of those things. You want to call Barack Obama Hitler? Then show me Hitler's Tucson.
So while Obama's words were more condemning of the Democratic discourse of the past few days, the speech itself was a ringing rebuke of all the Republican delusions, the delusions that the Democratic government is evil, that it's full of Manchurian candidates and sleeper agents and gran'ma-smotherers, that it's on the verge of turning America into the Union of the Third Reich of Kenyanistan. In one fell swoop, Obama pulled his entire party away from the brink of confrontation with a weaponized political lunacy and stood, alone on a stage, staring all the hordes down, like Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral, daring them to draw their guns and aim their sights and try to take him down, that no cross-hair or brandished gun can stop the power of love and hope, that no bullet can defeat the strength of the human spirit to open its eyes, and that there is no hate that cannot be washed away by rainpuddles.
I am glad that this man is our President.
Me too. He is earning his Peace Prize - but at home more than abroad.