Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Amazing Grace

You sang it in Charleston.  More important, you’ve lived it.  You brought Amazing Grace to us with your remarkable presidency.  Sometimes when recounting your administration’s accomplishments, you’d add rhetorically, “thank you, Obama”.  Well thank you Obama, thank you Mr. President for what you have done for the country and for us all.  You’ve made a difference and we are better for it.  Whatever lies ahead, our hopes will not, dare not, be diminished.

There are so many things that I will miss about President Barack Obama, not the least the steady and reliable hand with which he governed these past eight years.  But perhaps as much as anything else, I’ll miss his uplifting oratory.  He has that special gift given to very few.  Having grown up with a father who had a similar gift, public oratory is particularly dear to my heart.  Listening to a great speech beautifully delivered is like hearing the music of the masters, of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms.

All presidents are required to deliver public addresses.  Some are very proficient speakers, others fall flat.  Bill Clinton, once called the explainer-in-chief, is a compelling speaker as was Ronald Reagan building on his theatrical experience.  Looking back at history one thinks of John F. Kennedy at his inaugural and before the Berlin wall, but in the twentieth century Franklin Roosevelt had no peer.  Fortunately, we have a substantial amount of film footage showing how he electrified audiences.  Abraham Lincoln wrote some of our greatest presidential speeches, but is said to have had a high pitched voice which effected his delivery.  In the known presidential pantheon – we will never know how Washington or Jefferson delivered – Obama stands out and perhaps apart.

Many of our presidents came to the fore after years of public service, mostly with a slow credential build that included years in Congress or as governors.  Obama came to us through a single speech, what historians may one day call the speech.  Delivered by the then Illinois State Senator at the 2004 Democratic Convention, Obama blasted instantaneously onto the national scene.  I watched it with others and said to them that we were seeing a future president.  I was hardly alone in that assessment and can think of no comparable experience.  I had been watching every convention keynote since my teenage years.  Just four years later the speech propelled Obama into candidacy and then election.  Thanks especially to YouTube, we can watch and listen to that and all his major speeches.  I have done so, if only for their “music”.

Obama has the oratorical gift of FDR coupled with a Lincoln-like pen.  It isn’t merely his delivery but the beauty of language.  For sure, like all presidents, he employs gifted speech writers, but to one degree or another his hand is in all those texts.  We’ve read his books and know that he is a serious and accomplished writer.  Oratory and text are a powerful combination, part of what makes both listening to and/or reading his speeches so special.  His brief victory speech on election night 2008 in Chicago’s Grant Park captured the essence of the campaign and the historic moment – the election of the first African American president – as he gave confirming closure to the slogan, “yes we can”.  A bookend to that talk, an affirmation of its historic nature, came for me in his moving address commemorating fifty years after Selma at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge last year.  By that time, in the penultimate year of his presidency, Obama had become more comfortable with aligning himself more closely with the civil rights movement and addressing matters of race head on.

Presidents are expected to be our consoler in chief.  Obama has often had to fulfill that role in tribute to notables who died in the fullness of their years, but also when lives were brutally taken by violence, most painfully children.  His eulogy for Nelson Mandela was another of his soaring and moving oratories, delivered before the assembled thousands including three of his predecessors in a South African arena.  Like the Selma speech that would follow, it contained echoes of the civil rights movement but on an international scale.  It was there that he shook hands with Raul Castro, the first step of what would end in more normalized relations with Cuba.  The gesture fit both Mandela’s peacemaking with your adversary legacy and the extended hand message of Obama’s eulogy.

Most painful were his addresses at Sandy Hook elementary school and Charleston, the sites of senseless mass murders.  Obama has often said that the day of the Sandy Hook massacre was the worst of his presidency, something that deeply touched the nation and him personally as a father.  So, too, the slaughter of worshippers and their pastor in Charleston.  These poignant talks combine empathy for the surviving families with moral outrage at the senselessness of gun violence.  Both are worth a listen and will be for years to come.

Obama at his very best as what I’d call a stadium orator.  His style fits massive audiences, something shared with many great orators, who, like live theater actors, thrive on the electricity generated by the crowd.  Altogether Obama is definitely far better before a live audience (of any size) than talking into a camera for his formalistic weekly address.  FDR may have been the master of the “fire side”, Obama is not.  He needs that interplay, that emotional contact even if those he is addressing are just listening.  Even then the audience and speaker are joining in making the experience, each acting their role in the “performance”, making it individually special.  Orators like Obama may be getting some gratifying feedback from the applause of a responsive audience, but what is really more important is the energy it generates.  It’s that shared energy, the dialogue, that makes the difference between a very good and extraordinary speech.  It is also where an orator and a mere speechmaker can be differentiated.  Great orators enjoy the experience, while speechmakers may see it as a chore.  While I’d guess Obama leaves the podium on a high, a lesser speaker may leave it with a sense of relief, a dreaded job completed.

Amazing grace is what we’ve had – the exposure to a very special gift and talent – in Barack Obama.  For sure, like many politicians, Obama could rouse the crowd marshalling them for the “cause”.  He did that on the campaign trail, but most of his gifts were used to inspire.  It is the inspiration that we will remember.  Whatever happens to his legacy of accomplishments as a result of a change in leadership, especially in these highly partisan time, his speeches will remain intact and undisturbed.  I for one am likely to revisit them, just to hear the words and delivery again.  I haven’t been doing that with the speeches of a Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, or either of the Bushes.  That’s not to take away from the import of their respective messages but rather for my greater interest in oratorical “poetry” over “prose”.  It’s what I described earlier as “music”.  Obama’s singing rendition of Amazing Grace may not have been at the level of his spoken words, but the speech it completed in a Charleston church hit all the right notes, perfect pitch.  Thank you, Mr. President.

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