Presidents are lucky if they have a moment in their presidency so amazing that it moves people at the time, and so transcendent that it is remembered years and decades later. For Barack Obama, this was his moment. For his eulogy of the victims of the South Carolina shootings, he reached deep down and came up with an unforgettable speech that combined a look at the nation's anguished history on race with a roadmap to a more hopeful future.
This was not the often-aloof, always-professorial politician who was once seen as the man who would take the country to a post-racial era. Instead, grieving for families that know all too well that there is nothing "post-racial" about the present, there was a rawness and a soul that the public has rarely seen.
This was more than simply the first black president delivering a moving performance before a black congregation gathered at the College of Charleston to mourn the deaths of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the eight members of his congregation who were gunned down in their church by a man allegedly propelled by a hatred of their race. This was more than a well-crafted speech.
Unlike most African-American politicians, Obama was not raised in the black church. He grew up in Hawaii, raised by his white mother and white grandparents. It was not until adulthood when he became a community organizer in Chicago that he came to understand the power of the black church and marvel at the clout of its pulpit. Nor is he an overtly religious person. An infrequent worshiper, he attends regular church services less than any president since Ronald Reagan. Even his Christianity has come under attack by his harshest political critics.
But here he was Friday, clearly at home in the pulpit, clearly in sync with the rhythms of the black church, and clearly intent on using the event to open a window to his heart and push an openly liberal agenda on race and guns. That the speech allowed us a glimpse of the very private Obama we rarely see made it even more powerful. It was, as he said in his speech, "a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life."
The president could have been talking about himself when he described the slain Pinckney. When the young minister entered a room, observed Obama, "it was like the future arrived, that even from a young age, folks knew he was special, anointed." Now, with the days of his presidency dwindling and his party on the run in Washington, this speech signaled that Obama is not ready to concede his role in shaping that future.
No one can know if he would have given this speech in this way in his first term when he still had to face the voters. What is known is that he has never before been so blunt in talking about race and the Confederacy. Certainly, he has spoken before about race—most notably, a stirring speech at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, four months ago, and a campaign speech in Philadelphia in March 2008.
But this was different. The Selma speech placed the civil-rights struggle in its proper place in American history; the Philadelphia speech was a campaign effort, tinged with a defensiveness and a caution designed to keep his candidacy alive. He didn't take any chances.
Friday, he took chances—and didn't seem to be at all worried about the consequences or how it might poll. For those who thought he was resigned to his fate after watching Republicans take over the Congress, and for those who thought that his political capital is spent, this speech is a powerful counterpoint.
In a heavily Republican state, in the presence of Republican officeholders including the speaker of the House, several senators, and the state's governor, he made an unabashed plea for the liberal positions on guns, the Confederate flag, race, voting rights, and hiring practices—and cast it all as the legacy of the martyred pastor he was eulogizing.
While praising Republican Gov. Nikki Haley for her leadership in consigning the rebel flag to museums, he added pointedly, "I don't think God wants us to stop there." Instead, he called for less talk about race—"We don't need more talk"—and more action flowing from the recognition of the impact of racism. "For too long," he said, "we've been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present."
That is not a message many want to hear. But it is one he grounded in scripture and a passion rarely seen in this White House, culminating in a long pause before he did something almost certainly unprecedented in a serious presidential speech. Watching from across the country on television, one person who has long straddled the worlds of politics and religion was, like so many others, moved.
"When he began singing "¦ 'Amazing Grace', you just had to know nothing like that had ever happened before—ever," said George Mitrovich, president of the San Diego City Club and former president of the San Diego County Ecumenical Council, an organization of 125 Christian churches.
"There are many in Washington who believe this president is tone deaf on his relationship with Congress," he added, acknowledging he is one of those critics. "But no one, no one, will ever say that about him in matters of soul and spirit."