Obama at Wesleyan: a subtle elegance I missed the first time
Via reader Rachel, a heads up on a sublime aspect of Barack Obama's recent commencement speech at Wesleyan. (Previously on the speech here and here.)
To review: Obama was there in place of the ailing Teddy Kennedy. Kennedy had given Obama a huge boost in the legitimacy-and-legacy category by endorsing him, even if it didn't help much in the MA. primary. And Kennedy's most famous speech was his "concession" speech at the 1980 Democratic convention in New York, when he brought the house down (I was there) with his defiant reassertion of the liberal values that he thought the doomed incumbent, Jimmy Carter, had abandoned. His speech ended with these words:
For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end.
For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.
The structure of Obama's speech, these 28 years later, built toward praise of Kennedy's legacy and record, and ended with these words:
That is all I ask of you on this joyous day of new beginnings; that is what Senator Kennedy asks of you as well, and that is how we will keep so much needed work going, and the cause of justice everlasting, and the dream alive for generations to come.
As Rachel points out, this ending was
an allusion so subtle that Kennedy himself might be the only person who caught it. Obama took the speech of Ted's lifetime... and put the three key words - work, cause, dream - into the last line of the text. Poetry into prose, a private tribute to the man whose endorsement took Obama from runner up to winner.
What is so elegant about this touch? Precisely that Obama did not feel obliged to spell out all the links. ("And what I ask of you, in Senator Kennedy's own unforgettable words...") Politicians shouldn't be obscure. But a willingness to assume good things about the public -- its knowledge, its understanding, its ability to rise above the most immediate appeal to pocketbook or prejudice -- is part of what makes a politician into a leader. Even if the intended audience for this close was strictly the Kennedy family, it is an impressive bit of craftsmanship.