Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama the Speech Mythologist

Moments from now, Barack Obama is going to give what his campaign calls a “major” speech about race. A curious choice of words. Does Obama generally offer trifling speeches? Well, he does, but is that what his campaign wants to convey? His campaign, which (for all intents and purposes) began with his shining moment at the 2004 convention, has been an attempt to skip from major moment to major moment. In the interim, he is losing the ground war.

The hope, for Obama supporters, is that people will embrace the idea of Obama. This is not an entirely unreasonable request. The presidency, adorned by a cavalcade of advisors as it is, could be said to be an abstraction in itself. In this narrative, Obama would he a salve for partisan wounds, while experienced handlers would make the decisions.

Clearly, his appeal is not about ideology. He is a liberal, but that’s a secret (shhhh). It is not about policy, as Hillary has shown herself to grasp issues that Obama cannot. No, it is about the concept of President galvanizing a country that is struggling through a perceived leadership crisis.

And so we have the candidate Obama, remaining mysterious, playing the race card as necessary, cutting briefings short… Creating an IDEA of himself, carefully crafted and buffeted by ample campaign coffers. Gliding from big moment (the 2004 convention) to big moment (fainting college students, literal and figurative) to…

And this is Obama’s problem. Prior to the pseudo-Tuesday elections that delivered Ohio and Texas for Hillary, the Obama campaign sent a press release calling on a then-reeling Clinton to drop out, should she lose both states. Clearly, the goal was to set up Obama for a big victory speech, delivering the final nail to the Clintonian coffin.

Only, polls indicated that Hillary was leading in both of the states, and Obama’s campaign unintentionally magnified her victory by rendering Ohio and Texas primary results as a referendum on the nominee.

Fair enough. Everyone drinks the Kool-aid once in a while, and when it comes to Kool-Aid, Barack Obama might as well be the gigantic pitcher bursting through the wall. Seriously, the dude could have ended the entire Republic of Guyana, were he so inclined. But what next?

Well, Jeremiah Wright was next. As skeletons in the closet go, Wright is no biggie. Race-baiting snake oil salesman are a dime a dozen in the Democratic party. But absent any tangible evidence of his presidential fortitude, the story has lingered. As day-to-day reality begins to bristle against the narrative Obama, he cannot redirect the discussion to policy or ideology, lest he play into the hands of his opponent.

Instead, and in a desperate attempt to keep his sheen, Obama has resorted to fibbing a bit, pretending he knew nothing about Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary remarks (he wasn’t in church those days). All politicians fib, of course, but when you are trying to be post-political…

And so he is ready to give a “major” speech on race. Ostensibly, this is a golden opportunity for Obama to have a moment while discussing his most compelling attribute. He is black, and he will have the spotlight to tell everyone why that is important, and how that makes him uniquely suited to bridge the gap illuminated by Wright’s disturbing rhetoric.

But moments aren’t what they used to be. Unlike, say, Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech, Obama will not be speaking in monologue. Television viewers will be treated to a host of commentary by various pundits. His success will be measure against expectations (which are, you know, “major”). Others will watch video clips embedded into their political blogs of choice, while still others will view it on Youtube, with easy reference to Wright’s original remarks, in case they need a refresher.

But if anyone call pull Checkers out of his ass, it is probably Obama. His stated goal, to provide context and clarity to Wright’s remarks, is unachievable. Wright’s words are beyond the pale, period. But he can make himself a sympathetic victim, torn between cultures and upbringings, able to understand both sides, yadda, yadda.

If he does, he will stem the tide of negative press, and resurrect the Obama myth. But America isn’t going to elect Zeus. This isn’t the depression, and Obama can’t hide his wheelchairs forever. Whatever Obama says tonight, rest assured that it will be calculated, focus-grouped, and almost entirely untrue.

At what point does the idea simply become a lie?

Update: He delivered his speech, first unequivocally condemning the remarks, then proceeding to equivocate, then blaming white people. Supporters will gobble up the sunshine, and point to Obama's reference to the Consitution as proof he understands policy matters. I suspect that those alienated from his campaign will remain so.


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