LETTER FROM WASHINGTON
It will take more than one great speech for Obama to reassure some Democrats
David Eisenhower teaches a class at the University of Pennsylvania on American political speeches. Senator Barack Obama, with his address last week on race and politics, gave him a new course.
"It was a very powerful speech," said Eisenhower, whose grandfather was president of the United States and supreme allied commander in World War II. "Obama gives a very compelling reason as to why this is his time."
The Obama speech was necessitated by videotapes of his former pastor assailing the United States and its white majority. With his presidential fortunes at risk, the Illinois Democrat could have simply disassociated himself from those remarks and the preacher, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr.
Instead, while addressing that issue, he used it as an opportunity to talk about the larger question of race in America. He did it with a candor rare in politics.
There have been analogies to John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech on his Catholicism before a group of Protestant ministers in Houston. Eisenhower said it was more like Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 talk to a black audience in Indianapolis, when he informed the gathering that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed.
In that speech, Bobby Kennedy said people had a choice between turning justifiable anger into "greater polarization" or channeling it into something positive to get beyond racial divisions. Last week in Philadelphia, Obama said whites and blacks also faced a choice this year of continuing racial differences and stereotypes or beginning a conversation about common ground.
Most powerful were the parallels he drew between black and white anger in America. The lack of opportunities and services has "helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt" black communities, he said.
Similarly, most working- and middle-class white Americans "don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race," he said, and when they hear that blacks are getting ahead because of race, "resentment builds."
Kennedy 40 years ago acknowledged that blacks would be bitter that a white man had killed King; he reminded them that a white man had also killed his brother, the president. Obama, in criticizing his former minister's incendiary, racially tinged rhetoric, also noted that his white grandmother, who raised him with great love, had made hurtful anti-black remarks.
"Like Robert Kennedy, Obama used this as a teaching moment," Eisenhower said.
Obama, 46, spoke passionately about his multiracial background and experiences and how unique America was in affording someone like him unlimited opportunity.
It may not work. His challenges are daunting.
Not surprisingly, political opponents have seized on this controversy and trashed the speech. Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House, called it "fundamentally dishonest" and said Obama avoided making a "candid report."
Gingrich, one of the most ethically challenged figures in recent American politics, often became embroiled in controversy; during those times, he was a stranger to candor.
More important for Obama was not turning off his base of black voters. On this he succeeded. "I didn't think he could pull it off," says Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore's campaign manager in his 2000 presidential run and is black. "Even the master, Bill Clinton, couldn't have pulled this off, but Obama did."
Still, she isn't sure how it will play out. "I don't know if his opponents and voters are mature enough to handle this conversation."
That will depend on the reaction of white America, especially so-called Reagan Democrats. These are the white, largely ethnic, middle-class families, once reliable Democrats, who on cultural and values grounds switched to the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980 and have been swing voters ever since.
When these folks hear that a candidate's own minister has spewed anti-American, racial diatribes, it deeply disturbs them. Even before the Wright story broke, Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, a Hillary Clinton supporter, suggested that race would cost Obama about 5 percentage points in that state's primary next month.
For Obama to reassure these people that his values and his experiences aren't different from theirs will take more than one great speech.
The irony here is that whatever Wright's failings, there is nothing - nothing - in Obama's adult life to even remotely link him to racially divisive sentiments. Quite the contrary.
Talk to conservatives who attended Harvard Law School with him, like Ken Mehlman, the former Republican Party chairman, or Kevin Martin, the Federal Communications Commission chairman; or Republicans in the Illinois state legislature, or U.S. senators; or look at his campaign staff. There is not a more inclusive politician in America.