On Tuesday, President Obama—following the precedent of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—delivered a “Back to School” speech to American students, beamed live via the Internet and C-SPAN into thousands of classrooms across the country.
It’s not everyday that you hear a song that just blows your mind. It’s not everyday that an album lives up to the hype. But that is the case with Animal Collective and their new album Merriweather Post Pavilion (released today), specifically the song “My Girls.”
When Obama won the presidency on November 4, 2008, hipsters everywhere were ecstatic. The vast majority of hipsters (that is: indie-dressing fashionable young anti-establishmentarians) were Obama fans, and those that were not were mostly anarchists or otherwise apolitical or libertarian. But while Obama’s election was a proud moment for hipsters, it was also a significant blow to their long-term viability.
I spent the weekend in the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver, BC and Seattle), and I have to say that it was one of the loveliest autumnal weekends I've had in a long time. It was alternately rainy, misty, foggy, crisp, clear, and smoky. And the fall colors were enjoying their last vibrant bursts of showy seasonality. There were swirls and cyclones of deciduous death, good coffee and pubs and plays and Rilke poems. It was glorious. And Explosions In the Sky and Fleet Foxes, which is always good music for fall.
Regardless of the outcome of today’s election (I can’t believe I’m saying today’s election!), there are at least two truths that we will all wake up to tomorrow: Half of America will be discouraged and maybe even resentful. None of America’s problems will have been solved.
[Note: Last week Focus on the Family shared with us a sage and sobering letter from the future: 2012 to be exact. Perhaps because the news was too depressing to share, they neglected to also release the sequel--a letter from 2016 (after Obama's second term as president), written by someone named Ryan Hamm. I have that letter here. It's your Christian and civic duty to read it...]
I really want to vote for Obama. There are a myriad of reasons why it would thrill me to cast my vote for him on November 4. He is such an attractive and inspiring figure, and I'm not just saying that because it's the standard line about Obama. It's true.
So I was in London on Saturday, and spent some requisite time wandering around Trafalgar Square in the rain. Like Times Square in NYC, Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, or other such urban centers, Trafalgar square is alive with bustling activity, tourism, and, well, masses of diverse humanity. Moving around the throngs of people on Saturday reminded me of just how much I love being in international cities and particularly these sorts of iconic public spaces.
If you have not heard or read Barack Obama’s much-discussed “race speech” from a few weeks ago, I urge you to do so. You can read the transcript here (warning: it’s lengthy).
Now I am far from an apologist for Barack Obama. I have many reservations about him, as I do for the other candidates vying for the presidency. But one area in which I think Obama does exceed Hillary Clinton and John McCain is in rhetorical capability—the command of the spoken, well-articulated word.
Quite simply, Obama’s speeches blow the doors off of any of Clinton’s or McCain’s. Case in point: the “race speech.” Ostensibly delivered as a damage-control oration (to tranquilize the understandably damaging Rev. Wright controversy), the speech turned out to be one of the most complex, nuanced, unexpectedly brilliant bits of prose uttered by an American politician in the last two decades.
The speech was so striking because it did not sound political; it sounded intellectual. It did not pander to the lowest common denominator, but instead demanded a high level of cerebral engagement on the part of the audience. This is all very shocking and uncharacteristic of politics in the 21st century.
Even conservative intellectuals have noted the uncommon intelligence of Obama’s speech. Here’s an excerpt from a Wall Street Journal editorial by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan:
“The speech assumed the audience was intelligent. This was a compliment, and I suspect was received as a gift. It also assumed many in the audience were educated. I was grateful for this, as the educated are not much addressed in American politics.
Here I point out an aspect of the speech that may have a beneficial impact on current rhetoric. It is assumed now that a candidate must say a silly, boring line—"And families in Michigan matter!" or "What I stand for is affordable quality health care!"—and the audience will clap. The line and the applause make, together, the eight-second soundbite that will be used tonight on the news, and seen by the people. This has been standard politico-journalistic procedure for 20 years.
Mr. Obama subverted this in his speech. He didn't have applause lines. He didn't give you eight seconds of a line followed by clapping. He spoke in full and longish paragraphs that didn't summon applause. This left TV producers having to use longer-than-usual soundbites in order to capture his meaning. And so the cuts of the speech you heard on the news were more substantial and interesting than usual, which made the coverage of the speech better. People who didn't hear it but only saw parts on the news got a real sense of what he'd said.
If Hillary or John McCain said something interesting, they'd get more than an eight-second cut too. But it works only if you don't write an applause-line speech. It works only if you write a thinking speech.
They should try it.”
Indeed, I think the reason Obama is so appealing to many of my generation is because he is so very counter to the cable news soundbite/infotainment zeitgeist. He is smart, serious, and eschews political stupidity. After eight years of an “I feel your pain” amoral politico and then eight more years of an anti-intellectual cowboy in the oval office, Americans are aching for something new—something as far from the “establishment” as possible. We don’t want a trigger-happy maverick in the White House; we want an educated visionary. We don’t want a politician in control of the free world; we want a professor.
Obama’s speech was more akin to a lecture by a college professor than it was a policy speech by a politician. It requires more than a thirty second Fox News soundbite to process and inspires us to rediscover the art of thinking through the issues. It recognizes that complicated problems can’t be solved in campaign speeches—but campaign speeches can at least get us thinking productively and critically about what and why these problems are.