During the Clinton era, I lost hope in political life because I couldn't stand political language. I grew to despise how people in power used words only to dictate outcomes -- that the gap between experienced truth and the story spoken out loud seemed to grow into a chasm, dark and sulfuric. I resented how politicians and their aides lived in fear that honest discourse on any hot topic could lead to career suicide. As much as I admired President Clinton, I knew that each public word was shaped and considered for its political impact as much as its truthful content, and that Washington was no place for someone who wanted to speak candidly about the problems that tear us apart as individuals, as families, and as Americans.
Then came Obama. He has shown us that a Democrat can be a strong contender without being a chest-beating poseur, without losing connection to what is true about himself as a man in this world. In this race he has shown no signs of shapeshifting -- he continues to be a man who brings people to the table. As a communicator, Obama is brave enough to speak truth and to speak it clearly and judiciously, when a thousand political know-it-alls would tell him to hedge and deflect, hedge and deflect.
This brings us to this morning, and the anticipated speech on race and his response to Rev. Wright. I read the transcript first. I read it and thought, wow, he's about to spend 30+ minutes speaking like a normal, learned human being, as if he were still a law professor with the mission to spread understanding as opposed to a politician who wants simply to push our buttons, and to do so without resorting to the usual codes and vagaries. When does this ever happen when race is discussed at the presidential podium? The speech already read like something extraordinary, and he hadn't even gave it yet.
Then he delivered.
At first, I worried that the speech would be too long. But holy cow, the energetic throughline -- I was startled the first time the audience broke into applause, because my attention wasn't faltering. He was speaking clearly and powerfully, straight to me, to us, from his head and from his heart. He did so for over 30 minutes, uninterrupted, on American and international airwaves. He spoke about the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, the ways, large and small, that black Americans have been cut down at the knees, and he did so in a reasoned way, as opposite to demagoguery as I've ever heard. He kept weaving between the personal and the political, and doing so without attempts to manipulate, just to illuminate, to offer us his truths and let us decide for ourselves.
Wow, I kept thinking. This much honesty x this much viewership=never happens!
He spoke of his white grandmother, of the great love they had for each other. But he also acknowledged that she feared the black men she saw on the streets, and that she was capable of saying hurtful, ignorant things about racial groups. Yes, I wanted to scream out loud: this is how people are! We are walking wonders of cognitive dissonance and beautiful contradiction! Creatures that can love one moment and fear the next. And thank you, Candidate Obama, for showing that you can still be a contender without throwing overboard every person who says something harmful to your political chances, that you can offer the reasons you disagree, without acting like a man who has been important in your life is suddenly dead to you.
Leading to what particularly moved me this morning, Obama's refusal to disown Reverend Wright. "As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me," said Obama. "He contains within him the contradictions -- the good and the bad -- of the community that he has served so diligently for so many years." After telling us why he found several of Wright's statements hurtful, he declared, with a steady and strong voice: "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community."
To stand up for the truth, the truth of his experience, before those bright white lights, in front of those flags, and to do so at a time when all the levers of federal power are within his grasp, to not choke, to be strong, to be a unafraid: this is a profile in courage.
And then, Obama does what he does so powerfully: he shows his deep empathy and understanding for those who have not walked in his shoes. He talks of how almost all Americans have had to struggle hard, and how in this fight for survival one can forget the privilege they have in the culture -- for what good does white skin do if you can't pay your kid's hospital bills?
Now, the games begin: the spinning and the parsing, some organically connected to what he said, and much that will just be sheer offense, the political communicators bent on taking him down by any means necessary. Regardless, we should all be thrilled that for one window in time, a presidential candidate was fearless enough to insert eight pages of honest, thoughtful argument into the record, and in doing so honored suffering with the greatest salve of all: truth. Because whether or not we agree with each others' statements, we must take the time to understand where we're coming from, or we're doomed to be locked in perpetual conflict.
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