So I was quietly minding my own business this week when someone sent me a link to the text of Barack Obama’s March 18, 2008 speech, “A More Perfect Union.” A speech that came from Obama’s own pen, according to many sources. I didn’t have a chance to read it until today, and I’m glad I waited, because it was good to be able to take my time and savor the richness of the writing.
There are a multitude of websites at this point where you can watch the speech and/or read the transcript. I read the text on MSNBC’s First Read. It is truly an inspirational piece of political writing. For those who haven’t read or heard it yet, one of the main purposes of the speech was to respond to the inflammatory comments made by Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. And I thought Obama’s response was one of the most decent ways a man could respond to something like that:
As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.
. . . As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.
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.
In this response, we see Obama’s immediate but measured response to a political controversy. But the speech transcends the controversy. By juxtaposing the conflicting elements within Rev. Wright and also his own grandmother, Obama exposes and juxtaposes his own loathing of racism against the love and loyalty of family. This side-by-side comparison of conflicting elements becomes a thematic motif of his speech, explicitly stated toward the beginning of his remarks:
I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren.
It is, quite simply, a speech that I believe will be read long after the campaigns have been forgotten, that may one day even become as iconic as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Final disclaimer: I am commenting solely on this as a piece of writing. Should anyone wish to steer me toward a Hillary Clinton or John McCain speech that they feel is particularly amazing, I will be happy to give them equal time.