Barack Obama delivered his best speech on March 18, 2008, in Philadelphia. This is a subjective assessment, of course, and I reserve the right to revise these remarks, and even retract them entirely, and perhaps denounce them bitterly. But I’ve been looking at Obama rhetoric the last few days, for a story in our special Inauguration section, and I’m ranking that at his best, with the Tucson speech coming in second.
Obama has also delivered some clunkers. My story talks about that at length. He’s a spotty performer. He wasn’t so great at the convention this summer. His first inaugural address was so-so. He arguably hasn’t produced a trademark line or utterance. He’s a cautious, self-monitoring speaker in extemporaneous settings. I’ll post my story when it’s online.
But he clearly is a gifted speaker and wordsmith when he’s on his game. The speech I’ll always remember was the one in Tucson — his second-best effort, as I’ve said — which concluded with a passage that brings a tear to the eye two years removed from the tragic shooting that drew the president to Arizona. Let’s just paste it in and see what happens:
I believe that, for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.
That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina-Taylor Green believed.
Imagine — can you imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy, just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship, just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future.
She had been elected to her student council. She saw public service as something exciting and hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.
I want us to live up to her expectations.
I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us, we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.
As has already been mentioned, Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called “Faces of Hope.” On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child’s life: “I hope you help those in need,” read one. “I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope — I hope you jump in rain puddles.”
If there are rain puddles in Heaven, Christina is jumping in them today.
So that was a very good speech, probably his best as president. But his best speech was the Philadelphia speech on race when he was running for president and under fire for his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. I rank it the best because the degree of difficulty was the highest. He had to address directly his relationship with the fiery preacher, and he managed to renounce Wright’s beliefs while at the same time embracing him as being practically a member of his own family. He discussed the history of racism in America, the lingering anger of blacks and resentments of whites, and he made clear that he didn’t think his own candidacy represented some kind of breakthrough to a post-racial America. The speech was both philosophical and intensely personal. No speechwriter could have written it for him. It’s worth re-reading on this weekend in which we commemorate the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and prepare for Obama’s second inaugural.