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Barack Obama Shifted the Political Discourse Today

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Senator Barack Obama displayed a quality in his speech today that the Democratic Party desperately needs in its nominee in 2008: Fearlessness. It was not Barack Obama who injected race into this campaign -- Bill and Hillary Clinton did that for the most crass political purposes -- but when his political enemies moved Reverend Jeremiah Wright's sermons to center stage Obama masterfully shifted the political discourse and replaced the media-driven hype about Reverend Wright with a frank discussion of the state of race relations in America.

In his speech today, Obama displayed his nuanced understanding of the meaning of the U.S. Constitution and of the trajectory of American history. No presidential candidate in decades has had such a masterful grasp of the engine of social change and the role of struggle against injustice in moving history forward. Obama elevates our political discourse by trying to educate the electorate on the problems we face and speaking truth to both the powerful and the powerless.

Obama's honesty is like oxygen for our democracy, especially after years of the political farce we've had to endure. "We can accept the politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism," he said. "We can tackle race only as spectacle -- as we did in the OJ trial -- or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina -- or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies."

Obama said we can move in that divisive and tired direction as a nation and as a people, or we can choose a new path that seeks out wherever possible our common interests and our common fate. "I would not be running for President if I didn't believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation -- the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election."

There was an audible echo of America's greatest leaders ringing throughout Obama's speech today. As a biographer of Robert F. Kennedy, I could not help but be struck by the similarity in sentiment Obama expressed. His courageousness and honesty reminded me of some of RFK's greatest speeches on race relations. As the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. approaches, I believe both MLK and RFK would be gratified that America still has the capacity to listen to people like Barack Obama. On April 4, 1968, Kennedy said: "What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black."

Obama showed today that he is the only presidential candidate who can lead this nation in a new direction, elevate the political discourse, and educate the electorate on the challenges ahead.