Obama’s Grace

The president delivers his single most accomplished rhetorical performance, and it’s one you should watch rather than read.

President Obama during the singing of Amazing Grace on Friday in Charleston (David Goldman / AP)

I think Barack Obama’s eulogy yesterday for parishioners of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was his most fully successful performance as an orator. It was also one that could have come only at this point in his public career—and not, for instance, when he was an intriguing figure first coming to national notice, as he was during his celebrated debut speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston 11 years ago; or when he was a candidate fighting for political survival, as he was when he gave his “Race in America” speech in Philadelphia early in 2008.

I’ll explain why I say so, but first a word about the odd circumstances in which I’ve heard and learned about the speech.

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During the past week’s tumultuous events I have been physically and electronically removed from the swirl of news. Through the Confederate-flag aftermath of the murders in Charleston, to the Supreme Court’s healthcare and same-sex marriage rulings, to the president’s speech yesterday, I wasn’t in range of TVs or radios or more than a little trickle of the Internet and thus am catching up on everything all at once now.

Our scene of removal was the American Prairie Reserve in northeastern Montana, a Serengeti-scale longterm project to restore the northern grasslands to their original plant and animal population. It is a deeply impressive undertaking, and part of its power is the very fact that it is so far distant from urbanized America and its dramas and concerns. We’ll be writing more about it.

Yesterday, on our Cirrus flight down from northern Montana to the Denver area, we were listening to news programs on Sirius XM radio—which is (properly!) designed so that the news/music programming automatically blanks out whenever there’s a transmission on the air-traffic control frequencies. We were about 100 miles (or 30 minutes) north of Gillette, Wyoming, where we’d planned to make a refueling stop, when we came across a station playing the memorial service for Reverend Clementa Pinckney. We began listening, and heard the introduction for the president when we were about 20 minutes out.

The closer we got to the airport, the more frequent the air-traffic chatter became. In the final few minutes, it was back and forth: “We do not earn grace. We don’t deserve it. It is freely given by God—” “—Cirrus Five-Sierra-Romeo, runway three-four in use, report ten miles out, altimeter three zero two four—” “—We cannot leave our children in poverty.” It was only when we’d landed and were rolling along the taxiway to the refueling area, and the controller part of the conversation was done, that Sirius kicked back  in with someone singing Amazing Grace. Deb and I looked at each other and thought: Could that have been Obama?

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And of course it was. His singing was the aspect of the speech that will be easiest to remember. That is in part because it was so unusual and in part because it was so brave: Obama sang well, but not perfectly. For someone so precise and aspiring-to-perfection in most other realms of achievement, and so obviously hyper-aware of his levels of skill (he told Marc Maron in his remarkable WTF interview that he didn’t like playing basketball any more, now that he recognized that age had made him the weakest player on the court), singing like another enthusiastic parishioner, and not like a featured member of the choir, was brave and said something about his comfort with this crowd.

And of course he was aware that “this crowd” was not simply the many hundreds packed into that arena but the many millions around the world who would see it live, or later on. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the value of seeing this speech, in one of the video versions now available, versus just reading the text. (For the record: A video of the full nearly five-hour session is here, with Obama appearing around time 3:55; a New York Times video of his 35-minute speech itself is here; and the White House transcript of his remarks is here.) Like most Obama speeches, the text is indeed carefully written. But it is something entirely different as … I was going to say “as delivered,” but really the term is “as performed.”

Here are the three rhetorical aspects of the speech that I think made it more artful as a beginning-to-end composition than any of his other presentations:

— The choice of grace as the unifying theme, which by the standards of political speeches qualifies as a stroke of genius.

— The shifting registers in which Obama spoke—by which I mean “black” versus “white” modes of speech—and the accompanying deliberate shifts in shadings of the word we.

— The start-to-end framing of his remarks as religious, and explicitly Christian, and often African American Christian, which allowed him to present political points in an unexpected way.

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On grace:

When I finally watched the speech today, having been aware that it ended with Amazing Grace, I was increasingly surprised by the way in which Obama had built the whole preceding part of the speech toward that conclusion.

What were the advantages of his emphasizing grace—and not “justice” or “compassion” or “equity” or “opportunity”—as the recurring note of this speech? There were many:

— The president, the most powerful man in the world, could put himself in the closest thing possible to a stance of humility. “We don’t earn grace. We're all sinners. We don't deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway.”

— It allowed him to recast one part of the shooting’s aftermath in the most glorious way. When the families of the nine murdered churchgoers told the killer that they forgave him, one undertone of their saintliness was that we might be in for another “noble victim” episode. Black people would be killed or abused; their survivors and community would prove their goodness by remaining calm; and in part because of their magnanimity, nothing would change.

But by characterizing their reaction as a reflection of grace rather than mere “forgiveness,” Obama was able to present it as something much different than patient victimhood:

[The killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others] surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. (Applause.) An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.
Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. (Applause.) God has different ideas. (Applause.)  

He didn’t know he was being used by God. (Applause.) Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group—the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court—in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness.  He couldn’t imagine that. (Applause.)  

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley—(applause)—how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond—not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood—the power of God’s grace.  (Applause.)  

— It allowed him to use a genuinely brilliant rhetorical device through the “policy” portions of his speech. The president recited the words to Amazing Grace midway through the speech, before singing them at the end. Including these crucial, closing words: “was blind, but now I see.”

Soon after reciting those words the first time, Obama said:

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.

And from that point on in the speech, he consistently used the “we’ve been blind / but now we see” pairing to present all the policy points he wanted to discuss. For instance, with emphasis added:

For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens. (Applause.) It’s true, a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge—including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise—(applause)—as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. (Applause.) For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now.

And on throughout the speech. We were blind to a problem; but now through God’s grace our eyes have opened; and we can see what we should do. Another example:

For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation. (Applause.) Sporadically, our eyes are open:  When eight of our brothers and sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theater, 26 in an elementary school. But I hope we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day…

The vast majority of Americans—the majority of gun owners—want to do something about this. We see that now.  

If you watch the speech again, note how carefully the “was blind, but now I see” theme knits together its elements. As a matter of composition, this is harder to pull off than you would think. And as a matter of political framing, it may not actually make a difference, but it’s as much as a political speech could possibly do to induce people to  think about issues in a different way. Appreciate how this approach comes across, versus “you were wrong, we are right.”

* * *

On shifting registers:

— Listening to chopped-up snippets of the speech in the airplane, I was struck by something that was all the more impressive when I heard the whole thing today. That was the way Obama, certainly on purpose, “code switched” with regularity through the speech. Sometimes he spoke almost as if he were an A.M.E. preacher, and certainly as if he was so comfortable in this setting as to know its stresses and pronunciations and styles. Listen for the words “Shout Hallelujah!” about 12 minutes into the speech to hear this tone. (If I do a line-by-line annotation, I’ll mention the times when he speaks in each register. But it’s not that hard to pick out.)

In other places—including, fascinatingly, his most explicit discourse on racial justice late in the speech—Obama sounds as neutrally professional-class-white-American as he does in most speeches from the Oval Office. When Obama first emerged as a national figure, the both-black-and-white story of his personal background conveniently paralleled the “bring us together” message of his political oratory. Manifestly the Obama years have not been a time of bridging the red-versus-blue divides. But I thought this speech more completely illustrated his own bridging potential than others he has given. Paralleling his shifts in diction was a surely non-accidental shift in his use of the word “we.” At different points in the speech he uses it to mean: we Christians; we African-Americans; we members of the black church; we parents; we people of all faiths and any faith; we Americans.

In his 2004 debut speech Obama had to explicitly spell out that he embodied the different strands of America: white mother from Kansas, black father from Kenya, himself the more fully American because of that mixture. In this speech he conveyed that message implicitly, through diction and use of “we.”

One thing we’ve learned about post-presidencies is that much of the poison drains away. We like nearly all of these people better once they’re out of office than when they were in the middle of the fray. You can imagine a post-presidential Obama being able to do more, on the “bring us together” front, than the poison of today’s national politics has allowed him to do in office.

— Here is another reason to watch rather than just read about the presentation. It reinforces the fact that this was a major national ceremony, involving fundamental discussion of national issues and prospects, in which all the major participants were black: president, preachers, mourners, congregation. I can’t think of a comparable previous event. Someone writing about our time will, I think, note it as an important step that this was treated not as a “minority” commemoration but as a central American discussion.

* * *

On religion:

If asked to describe Obama (as I once tried to do here), I would probably use up a lot of other adjectives before I got to “religious” or “Christian.” Obviously that is not because I believe he is a secret Muslim. It is just because he has struck  me as so coolly cosmopolitan, and so much more likely to explain his views with reference to history or literature or economics or jurisprudence than to the teachings of his faith.

But in this eulogy he was obviously completely at ease in the black church. He opened with a verse from the Old New Testament [Book of Hebrews], not even needing to spell out what he was quoting. He referred to the black church as the “beating heart” of the black community. Actually as “Our beating heart. The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate.” (Note this use of our.) He knew the cadence of preaching. And of course there was the hymn at the end.

I cannot presume to know whether Barack Obama is in a deep way a “believer.” I will say that no fair-minded person who watches this presentation can doubt that the church is also part of his beating heart. Again this is where I see post-presidential potential for him as a bridging figure. Some of the people who hate him most ferociously now might eventually be open to the grace of such a presentation.

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I took minute-by-minute notes while watching the speech today, which I might conceivably apply in a follow-up post. For now I am out of time at the computer, and have certainly said enough about this speech.

I have my complaints about and disappointments with Obama. But I hate the conventional D.C.-media disdain for him as a guy too cool, too aloof, and too generally above-it-all to be interested in the grimy work of public affairs. Think of the columns that begin, “Barry is bored ...” We can’t yet fully reckon the ways his era has changed our country, from the long aftermath of the 2008 recession to the consequential court decisions good and bad. (Side point: Political writers wonder when the Republican party will produce its next really shrewd strategist, the one who knows how to pick his battles rather than getting mired in obstructive pandering to the base. Such a figure already exists. His name is John Roberts.) But I think the events of this past week, leading to the Grace speech, will play an important part in the reckoning.