My 11th-grader is taking a course called "AP Language," which includes both a lot of writings taken from American history, and the study of rhetoric as technique. I gave her the text of the speech because as rhetoric, I thought it was absolutely brilliant.
Given the quality of American political discourse and our reticence about race, agree with it or not, this was the finest political speech of our generation.
Obama had to accomplish three things. He had to distance himself from the Rev. Wright's remarks while abandoning his previous implausible suggestion that he really didn't know about the kind of thing his pastor was prone to say. He had to avoid repudiating a man who had been his spiritual father for 20 years, which would ring false and be dishonorable. And he had to persuade at least his supporters and preferably others that he himself did not secretly share the weirdest of Rev. Wright's manias. He accomplished all three.
He accomplished more. He successfully explored the nuances of the racial attitudes of manyu blacks and whites, the anger of the black old men who Chris Rock observes are the most racist of all, and the resentment of whites constantly tagged with and forced to pay for discrimination. To begin to confront these issues in open expression is something no other American public figure has done. Even Oprah glosses over this stuff.
Nor do I believe he exploited his grandmother or threw her under the bus. What a poignant moment he describes. His grandmother's fear of assault by strange black men on the street was hardly irrational--even Jesse Jackson has admitted to such fears. And yet, his own grandmother was saying she feared assault from people who looked just like him. This incident may not be the equivalent of the ex-Marine Rev. Wright's "God damn America!" but it's a legitimate comparison, teaching that if we were honest, we all put our foot in it from time to time when it comes to race, a national sin and dilemma.
Do I buy his nostrums--more money for schools and the rest? Naah. I'm suspicious of social programs and the centralization of government, and I think the problems are rooted in a mxiture of genetics and culture that make them intractable, if not incapable of improvement.
I wouldn't have been for free silver in Jennings Bryan's day. But the "Cross of Gold" was a brilliant speech. So was Obama's "More Perfect Union."