- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If political campaigns were political movies, Barack Obama’s Big Speech deserves a big Oscar.

The Big Speech is a key characteristic of political movies, from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to “West Wing,” Slate’s David Edelstein once wrote: “The candidate either bravely affirms principles over politics and is transfigured, or cravenly yields to expediency and is damned.”

Mr. Obama’s Big Speech about race in Philadelphia went further than that. He bravely fought to save his presidential campaign by affirming principles over expediency as an argument for improving politics. His campaign was in crisis, thanks to the polarizing rhetoric of Mr. Obama’s spiritual mentor and former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ.

Sound bites of Mr. Wright characterizing the United States as fundamentally racist and the government as corrupt and murderous were replayed endlessly on talk shows and the Internet. Obama supporters, as well as reporters and other voters, demanded answers. With the future of his campaign on the line, Mr. Obama decided to address the biggest crisis of his campaign in the same way that he launched himself onto the national political stage at the 2004 National Democratic Convention, with a Big Speech.

In the end, I think even Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith would have been impressed.

As a public statement about race, culture, class in America, and, quite poignantly, in the heart of its speaker, Mr. Obama’s Big Speech offered a rare outpouring of brilliance, sophistication and personal frankness.

He put the Mr. Wright’s hurtful comments in the context of Mr. Wright’s generation and their experiences. He put himself in the context of a young community organizer, raised in a white world, who was still learning the ways of the black American community in Chicago’s South Side that he was trying to organize.

“Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely — just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.”

And yet, “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

With that, Mr. Obama moved to what I think has excited so many Americans since his Big Speech in 2004. He understands America’s divide over race and class because he has struggled with it. Yet he seems to be effortlessly unburdened by it. Maybe that’s what fooled Geraldine Ferraro. He made handling racism look almost easy. White America could deal with him guilt-free.

But beneath his happy face, his Ivy League education and his come-together rhetoric, Mr. Obama also has lived on the fault lines of America’s divide painfully within his own family. The Rev. Wright helped him to learn how most black Americans lived, but life also seems to have given Mr. Obama enough emotional distance to know where Mr. Wright went wrong.

“The profound mistake of Rev. Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country — a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”

But, as the Illinois senator also pointed out, the good news is that “America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope — the audacity to hope — for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.” With that, amid deserved applause, he moved smoothly from what divides Americans to the common concerns of jobs, schools, health care and housing that should unite us.

Will Americans come together under his leadership? The final act of this Obama drama depends on how we follow his Big Speech with our actions.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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