President Obama's critics like to accuse him of only being about words, rather than actions. Upon closer inspection, it's beginning to appear that he's as interested in provoking ideas and conversation as he is in using words to accomplish his agenda.
During the 2008 primaries, Barack Obama used early opposition to the Iraq war to win the nomination. Rival Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to undercut Obama by saying that their positions on Iraq -- i.e. voting to continue funding the war effort -- were virtually indistinguishable since Obama entered the Senate in 2005. In Clinton's words, the only thing that cemented Obama's total opposition and alleged superior judgment was "one speech" (in 2002, while Obama was still an Illinois state senator).
Of course, that political attack wasn't successful in knocking Obama off from his drive to the nomination. But it's an important moment to think about because -- as oft commented upon his individual speeches become (and his interesting mix of standard English and black cadences in delivering them) -- there is something of an idea that just "one speech" is responsible for Obama's rise. Or just one of several discreet individual speech.
After all, in addition to 2002's "one speech," there was the 2004 Democratic Convention keynote "one speech" that put the then-unknown state senator on the map. Then, there was the Jeremiah Wright-required "one speech" on race that helped save his campaign in Pennsylvania (though, ironically, it didn't produce a victory in the state in which it was delivered). And so on.
Quite a few "ones."
This isn't a coincidence. Obviously speech-making is one of the most powerful weapons in Obama's political arsenal, but the last couple of weeks have forced a new way of looking at his use of speech. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson was right two months ago when he defended Obama's use of a Teleprompter. "Governing is a craft, not merely a talent. It involves the careful sorting of ideas and priorities. And the discipline of writing -- expressing ideas clearly and putting them in proper order -- is essential to governing." Obama is committed to being an "idea" and "teaching" president and he packs a lot of those ideas and lessons into his major speeches.
Last week's commencement address at Arizona State allowed Obama to turn a snub over a denied honorary degree (because his 'body of work' was still ahead of him) into an exhortation to the graduates to perpetually challenge themselves and use every success as a catalyst for still more impressive works.
But that was merely an appetizer before the main course -- Notre Dame, where he did receive an honorary degree and delivered a commencement address. Of course, this became a political moment because of the abortion debate. The school itself was criticized by many conservatives -- Catholic and otherwise -- for honoring a pro-choice politician when the US bishops had seemingly declared that Catholic institutions should not compromise themselves in such a manner. Of course, much of the response to the speech broke down on ideological lines. But those willing to step back and attempt to hear a commencement address by an academic (remember that Obama was a law professor for about as much time as he was a community organizer) who wanted to inspire graduates -- and make them think. Such people were rewarded:
I'll even go one step further and say it's one of the most Jesuit Catholic speeches I've ever read, because of its emphasis on doubt, original sin, service, the common good, and tolerating faithful, intelligent questioning by people who give each other the benefit of the doubt. He talked about his early years working with Catholic churches in Chicago to serve the poor, and did everything but talk about the long-standing Catholic tradition of what we call "a preferential option for the poor." He even gave a shout-out to Father Ted Hesburgh and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, both moderates in the church. It's interesting to think about all the people he did not name.
As a pro-choice politician, Obama has a certain "side" on the abortion debate, but he is also interested in seeing debate continue. He doesn't sound like someone who wants to talk down to the pro-life side. He wants them to continue doing what they are doing. He is opening up a road to intellectual examination.
So, too, in Thursday's Guantanamo address. Yes, it was a political speech. There were pointed barbs at the previous administration, but there were also genuflections in the direction of history -- both Obama's personal one and the history of the country and why the need to follow the Constitution with respect to "enhanced interrogation techniques" and the problem of Guantanamo was ultimately the best way to protect American lives at home and soldiers abroad:
The documents that we hold in this very hall - the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights -are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality and dignity in the world.
I stand here today as someone whose own life was made possible by these documents. My father came to our shores in search of the promise that they offered. My mother made me rise before dawn to learn of their truth when I lived as a child in a foreign land. My own American journey was paved by generations of citizens who gave meaning to those simple words - "to form a more perfect union." I have studied the Constitution as a student; I have taught it as a teacher; I have been bound by it as a lawyer and legislator. I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never - ever - turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake.
I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset - in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval.
Fidelity to our values is the reason why the United States of America grew from a small string of colonies under the writ of an empire to the strongest nation in the world.
It is the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they'd receive better treatment from America's armed forces than from their own government.
It is the reason why America has benefited from strong alliances that amplified our power, and drawn a sharp and moral contrast with our adversaries.
It is the reason why we've been able to overpower the iron fist of fascism, outlast the iron curtain of communism, and enlist free nations and free people everywhere in common cause and common effort..
Obama frames the debate and then explores how the country got to the point it was today -- giving a slight nod to the honest intent of the previous administration that was indeed trying to protect the country after 9/11. He then goes on to makes his case for closing down Guantanamo.
He used a similar approach in the aforementioned Philadelphia race speech and provoked internal black community discussion in his Father's Day speech on absentee fathers. One is hard-pressed to remember a previous president so regularly willing to delve deep into the nation's history for speech after speech -- in the service of exploring controversial issues. Reagan, of course, did it a few times -- most notably in his "Boys of Point du Hoc" speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day or the famous "Tear, down this wall" speech. But those were commemorative and foreign policy addresses (which is not to say they weren't also important and effective). Even a gifted orator like Clinton rarely did it. As for the Bushes, well....
Speeches will never put food on the table.
But they can serve as food for thought for an often intellectually starved nation. They are something that hasn't been seen in quite sometime. Obama will never convert his strongest critics with his words, but there are those in the middle who may come back to these speeches -- now more easily available than ever between YouTube and any number of news sites -- and they may find that they will learn something. So also can they be used by school teachers and college professors -- as tools for either history, English or social studies.
One can do worse than having a product delivered by America's philosopher-in-chief.
Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.