Like many difficult conversations, it started awkwardly, with half-jokes and extraneous references. But when President Obama got into the substance of his soliloquy on race and Trayvon Martin’s death, his words had the power of a moving freight train.
Obama’s unscripted comments were some of the most remarkable and admirable few minutes of his presidency. He spoke carefully, but with great passion and clarity. He spoke explicitly as a black man, but also as an American president. He said the “unsayable” so wisely and subtly that he made it accessible, and to me, indisputably clear and correct.
Covering Obama’s presidency, I’ve often felt he had difficulty finding the right ground on which to stand when addressing the country, and the right words to unite it. He’s not a political man so much as a judicious one; he knows the things that people learn by watching others, and watching themselves. Sometimes, this reticence leads to a public disconnect. Since the 2008 campaign, I have been writing about Obama as “Mr. Cool,” and that wasn’t always meant as a compliment.
But today, talking about Martin, Obama embodied the kind of grace that is well-restrained passion. You knew how smart Obama was listening to him, as is often the case, but also how wise.
The emotional body blow came with Obama’s recollection of the experience of racism, described in the most personal and vivid language. The sense of being followed in a department store; the sound of door locks clicking at your approach; the breathless anxiety of a fellow passenger on an elevator. These images were unforgettable — so private that would make you cringe in any other setting than a reflection on the tragic death of a young man.
I thought, too, that Obama lifted the discussion of “stand your ground” laws to a new level when he asked whether people would have felt comfortable if an armed Trayvon Martin had stood his ground against a pursuing, and to him, threatening, George Zimmerman.
What presidents can do, uniquely, is level with the country, and that’s what Obama did from Friday’s briefing room session, somewhere between FDR’s “fireside chat” and TR’s “bully pulpit.” He implicitly cautioned African-Americans that it’s unlikely the federal government will have a legal response to the George Zimmerman verdict, because law enforcement is a state and local matter; he warned against that any violent reaction would dishonor Martin and his family.
And most admirably, Obama was blunt in rejecting facile recommendations that he “convene a conversation in race.” He was both humorous and brutally frank: “I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when people try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they have already taken.” It was such an honest remark, and one that few politicians would dare to make.
I can imagine that many people will be uncomfortable with Obama’s comments and find them inappropriate for a president. I couldn’t disagree more. This is what leadership is about: finding a voice and a language that only a president can speak. It’s exciting to imagine what the next three years could be like if Obama continued to operate at this level of engagement and intensity.
If people don’t like it, so be it: He’s not running for anything now except the history books. One person who understood immediately the good sense of what Obama had to say, interestingly enough, was Zimmerman’s brother, Robert. He called Obama’s remarks “very sincere” and praised his effort to “reduce the mistrust” between police and the African-American community. “I’m glad he spoke up today,” he said. I am too.