On Thursday, January 13, it was over. Most of the commentary that morning on both speeches – Palin on Facebook and Obama in Tucson – was that things had gotten to the point on both the left and the right that someone had to be the adult in the room. Obama stepped in and did that. And it was working. Spot polling had Obama’s approval rating soaring. Even the Fox News folks were saying, over and over, that the Obama speech was wonderful.
But he was just doing his job. And everyone else – from Palin to Olbermann – was looking like a petty idiot. That’s what he did to them. But he did the same thing to Hillary Clinton and then John McCain. Sneaky bastard.
And this time no one was talking about Palin:
Glenn Beck, Fox News host: He praised Mr. Obama for condemning a rush to judgment about the causes of the shooting, saying: “Last night, the president said what he should have said on Saturday. A leader says that on Day 1. But it is truly better late than never. This is probably the best speech he has ever given, and with all sincerity, thank you Mr. President, for becoming the president of the United States of America last night.
Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post columnist, on Fox News: He called it a “remarkable display of oratory and of oratorical skill, both in terms of the tone and the content.” He added: “You could only conclude that he did exactly what he had to do in a difficult environment.”
Pat Buchanan, former Republican speechwriter, on MSNBC: “I thought it was splendid.”
Eugene Robinson, Washington Post columnist: “His speech at the memorial service for the victims of Saturday’s massacre seemed not to come from a speechwriter’s pen, but from the heart.”
Marc Thiessen, former George Bush speechwriter, in The Washington Post: He credited the president for taking on the civility debate directly. “This was unexpected. It was courageous. It was genuine. And the president deserves credit for saying it.”
Jim Geraghty of the National Review, on Twitter: “Obama has never been more presidential than he was tonight.”
Mark Salter, the former speechwriter and senior adviser for Mr. McCain, in an e-mail: “It was excellent in tone, message and delivery.”
Joe Scarborough, MSNBC host and former Republican member of Congress: “If the slings and arrows come today, and they will, it will only serve to diminish” those who criticize the president.
Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, on ABC’s Good Morning America: “I thought it was excellent. I thought he did exactly what a leader should do at a moment like this.”
John Podhoretz, columnist for The New York Post: “If there is one thing we expect from occasions of national mourning, it is, at the very least, a modicum of gravity. That gravity was present in the president’s speech from first to last — especially in the pitch-perfect response to the disgusting national political debate over the past couple of days.”
John Weaver, former political adviser to Senator John McCain of Arizona, on Facebook: “The president had exactly the right tone and was pitch-perfect for the nation last night. And, when juxtaposed against … well, you know who … ahem.”
That wasn’t very nice, but Weaver and the McCain folks were, are and will forever remain exasperated with Sarah Palin. They had to prep her. But even what is sometimes called the Rabid Right was won over, or gave in, or just gave up. How did Obama pull that off? How does he do this sort of thing?
Richard Einhorn – the famous composer and political blogger – tries to figure that out while he also declares this “was not only the best speech Obama has given since becoming president, but also one of the greatest speeches given by any sitting president.”
That’s quite an assertion, particularly because Einhorn is trying to figure out how sneaky Obama seems to be – faking out his political opponents and leaving them flatfooted and frozen in place. Kobe Bryant does that all the time. Michael Jordan used to do it all the time. And we do have a president who is an avid basketball player. Maybe the skills are transferrable. But Einhorn doesn’t see the speech quite that way:
It was heartfelt, eloquent, beautifully written and paced, and deeply personal while calling all of us to realize a larger purpose: the national goal of establishing a discourse healthy for democracy.
This last issue is important. Among the subtleties of this amazingly subtle speech are the ways Obama denounces the hyper-partisan rhetoric of his opponents without for a moment sounding as if he is making a partisan point. By design, the speech makes it difficult for capital-H History to recapture the specifics of what Obama is talking about, but we know exactly what and who he means – or we think we do, which is one of Obama’s greatest and most exasperating oratorical skills.
Maybe it’s the oratorical equivalent of the masterful head fake, where you catch the other team’s point guard going the wrong way and you blow by him for an easy dunk. Or, for Einhorn, it’s something else:
What I’d like to focus on is something about the speech that probably won’t get remarked. I also noticed these things during the campaign, and until I understood what was going on, it drove me (not to mention many other people) almost crazy with despair. But I think it ultimately played a central, if usually unheralded, role in Obama’s spectacular victory. I’m talking about Obama’s uncanny skill at setting traps for his political opponents, traps in which they themselves – i.e., not Obama – act foolishly or so otherwise poorly that they disqualify themselves as serious opponents, who emerges from these fiascos looking not only like the only rational choice but, more emotionally, as the only conceivable choice.
And it is sneaky:
It is hard to talk about this particular tool in Obama’s political toolkit because it really does seem that his major opponents, through their own stupid mistakes, have self-destructed. Nor, I admit, can I pin down exactly where Obama’s being proactive in his opponents’ destruction. But consider for a moment that, when securing his nomination, Obama defeated both Clintons, two of the wiliest politicians alive. In the general election, Obama defeated a war hero and no mean political warrior himself.
All of these opponents made unbelievably bad decisions, seemingly without any involvement from Obama nor did Obama appear to exploit them.
And, by way of an example of that, Einhorn reminds us of the 2008 presidential campaign:
McCain’s vice presidential choice of Palin – the day after Obama’s Big Night – quickly devolved from a political masterstroke into a major league disaster, both politically and logistically (she was, by many accounts, a distracting nightmare to attend to). Obama sailed above it and McCain looked more and more foolish, and less and less like a serious alternative to Obama. The same thing happened a month later when McCain announced he was suspending his campaign, something he probably thought of as a political masterstroke, putting country about personal ambition and all that. Obama? He seemed to do nothing but shake his head and say he would continue his own campaign. Yet again, McCain’s foolish stunt backfired. And Obama’s stature as Serious Presidential Material was enhanced.
To be sure, the common wisdom is that McCain self-destructed due to his own foolishness, but amazingly Obama seems always to be in a position to gain and to gain big when a political opponent self-destructs. And when a politician opposes Obama, it’s quite striking how often they self-destruct. It just happened again.
This is not being lucky. Something is going on here – and Palin just got faked out. Her nickname, when she played high school basketball, was Barracuda – pure aggression and no fancy moves. That’s her. And now she seems flatfooted and frozen in place. And Obama got his easy dunk:
As weird and as scary as it is to realize, the only potential Republican presidential candidate with national recognition comparable to Obama is none other than John McCain’s gift to the nation. Not that she’s the best candidate, or had much of a chance of winning the nomination, just the most visible and most talked about. Now, if there had ever been the remotest chance of Sarah Palin becoming the Republican candidate, it’s over. As McCain did in ’08 with Obama’s nomination, Palin timed her latest to compete with attention with Obama in Tucson. And again, a major political opponent challenging Obama’s desire to be president made a big, big mistake, not only with the timing but with the content. I’m not the only person who thinks there may be no way she can recover from her “blood libel” speech and get nominated.
The principle challenger for 2012 has – as had her 2008 predecessors – seemingly, destroyed herself. The common wisdom is that Obama did nothing to help these extremely cunning political manipulators mess up so badly. I find that very hard to believe.
But he’s not clear on how Obama does this again and again:
I know that his timing is very unusual, radically so within the current political context. He responds slowly to crises, and very, very calmly. This was, and is, very unnerving to me as an observer; I can only imagine how it struck a hothead like McCain who was directly affected by it. But surely there are other things he does to help bait and spring traps to hoist enemies on their own petard.
Einhorn just doesn’t know what those other things are. But perhaps you’re not supposed to know. But someone, once again, got faked out of their shoes, as they say in basketball.
Gary Wills, in the New York Review of Books, takes a more conventional view, calling the speech Obama’s Finest Hour – which might seem over the top, but that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Wills wrote his comparison of Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race with Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union address during his own 1860 campaign:
I noted that both men had to separate themselves from embarrassing associations- Lincoln from John Brown’s violent abolitionism, and Obama from Jeremiah Wright’s Black Nationalism. They had to do this without engaging in divisive attacks or counter-attacks. They did it by appeal to the finest traditions of the nation, with hope for the future of those traditions. Obama renounced Black Nationalism without giving up black pride, which he said was in the great American tradition of self-reliance.
In that 2008 speech Obama said this:
It means taking full responsibility for our own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.
In a situation where his critics trumpeted “family values,” he spelled out what those really are. I concluded by saying, of Lincoln and Obama: “Each looked for larger patterns under the surface bitternessses of their day. Each forged a moral position that rose above the occasion for their speaking.”
The New York Review wanted to publish a booklet printing the Lincoln and Obama speeches together, but the Obama campaign discouraged that idea, perhaps to avoid any suspicion that they were calling Obama a second Lincoln.
But now Wills says Obama’s Tucson speech “bears comparison with two Lincoln speeches even greater than the Cooper Union address.”
In this case, Obama had to rise above the acrimonious debate about what caused the gunman in Tucson to kill and injure so many people. He side-stepped that issue by celebrating the fallen and the wounded and those who rushed to their assistance. He has been criticized by some for holding a “pep rally” rather than a mourning service. But he was speaking to those who knew and loved and had rallied around the people attacked. He was praising them and those who assisted them, and the cheers were deserved. He said that the proper tribute to them was to live up to their own high expectations of our nation. It was in that context, and not one of recrimination, that he called for civility, service – and, yes, heroism – in the country.
Obama said of the victims – “They believed, and I believe, that we can be better.” And that, says Wills, was the key:
It reminded me of the lesson of the fallen that Lincoln took from Gettysburg – “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” At Gettysburg Lincoln might have been expected to defend the North and blame the South – which is what Edward Everett did in the speech preceding his. Rather, the bulk of his speech was given to praising the dead and urging others to learn from them.
Edward Everett seems to have been the Sarah Palin of the day, but Lincoln was having nothing to do with blame:
Lincoln might have been expected in his Second Inaugural Address to trumpet the gains of the North and the setbacks to the South. Instead, he invited all Americans to grieve for the tragic war and to share blame for the historical crime of slavery. God “gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” Death should forge a bond among the living. “The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better.” Obama stepped around the obvious and divisive sifting of wrongs done, to urge the doing of right.
And the “sharing of praise for all who suffered and aided the suffering made Wills think of another speech – Henry V’s at Agincourt. Yes, Henry V has that great Saint Crispin’s day speech – you know, the few, the brave, that “band of brothers” stuff and all that. You get variations of that speech all the time, in movies like Independence Day and the third Lord of the Rings film, Return of the King, and even in Avatar – the hero-leader stands up and inspires the exhausted and dispirited to give their all – once more into the breach! Everyone loves that sort of thing. It’s a set piece that never gets old. And the good guys win!
And Wills add this detail:
The prologue to the Agincourt act describes how visits from the king cheered his men, giving them “a little touch of Harry in the night.” Shakespeare makes oblique reference here to “the king’s touch” which was supposed to heal people. In a more superstitious age that is how people might have seen the fact that the wounded congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, first opened her eyes right after Obama visited her. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, her friend who was in the hospital room when she opened her eyes, says that the moment seemed as miraculous as when her children were born.
The loudest cheers at the Tucson speech were for the news that “Gabby,” as she is known to all her many friends, was recovering. Perhaps there was the sound, there, of a nation recovering.
Yeah, yeah – and you might remember the last volume of The Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn, not yet king, as the final battle is yet to be fought, enters the city in disguise and reluctantly heals the wounded. The nurse Ioreth says this – “The hands of the King are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known”. The people hail him as King that same evening. It’s like that too, like Tolkien, and a little over the top.
But Michael Shear in the New York Times points out that Obama and Palin were saying almost exactly the same thing:
“No words can fill the hole left by the death of an innocent, but we do mourn for the victims’ families as we express our sympathy,” Ms. Palin said, looking directly into the camera. But the purpose of Ms. Palin’s video was clearly to send a different, more sharp-edged message. Just 1 minute and 32 seconds into her talk, Ms. Palin shifted gears, saying she had become puzzled and saddened by the accusations leveled against her and others by “journalists and pundits.”
Disciplined and sophisticatedly produced, the video ended with Ms. Palin’s resolve. “We need strength to not let the random acts of a criminal turn us against ourselves, or weaken our solid foundation, or provide a pretext to stifle debate,” she said. “We are better than the mindless finger-pointing we endured in the wake of the tragedy.”
That message, in truth, was not so different from the one that Mr. Obama delivered 15 hours later in front of more than 14,000 people at the McKale Memorial Center.
“They believed, and I believe, we can be better,” the president said, referring to the victims of Saturday’s shooting. And, like Ms. Palin, he rejected as far too simplistic the idea that political speech, however harsh, was directly responsible for the tragedy.
“If, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy – it did not – but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation, in a way that would make them proud,” he said.
But what could not have been more different was the tone. Where Ms. Palin was direct and forceful, Mr. Obama was soft and restrained. Where Ms. Palin was accusatory, Mr. Obama appeared to go out of his way to avoid pointing fingers or assigning blame. Where she stressed the importance of fighting for our different beliefs, he emphasized our need for unity, referring to the “American family – 300 million strong.”
It seems he modeled what he was talking about. She didn’t.
But Digby argues that what Shear says is, in a way, unfair:
The president has to try to speak for the whole country in a speech like that while Palin is speaking only for her allegedly “victimized” minority, (and truthfully only for herself.) One can imagine a speech in which the president might have said something more forceful, but I’m not sure it could have been this one. The facts don’t back up a direct condemnation of wild right wing rhetoric as the proximal cause of this particular tragedy and the president cannot engage in the kind of nuanced discussion the rest of us are having in a speech to the nation. Palin, of course, doesn’t have that responsibility, and while I’d hardly call her speech “nuanced” it was part of that conversation, not a speech like the one the president had to give last night.
It’s as if one party was playing basketball, and the other party was playing musical chairs. But that’s the way things are. The two sides aren’t even playing the same game:
You have an angry subset of Republicans who feel unfairly maligned by a society that’s changing in ways they don’t fully buy into. It’s a strain in American political life that’s always been around and perhaps it’s because of the nature of America itself – it’s been a dynamic culture from the beginning with lots of immigrants and second chances and social mobility. And there have been sweeping social changes in the past few decades – more changes than a lot of people are able to cope with. This group is fairly represented by Palin, with her “sharp” and “forceful” call to fight for their beliefs and dissent from the consensus. She didn’t make any friends among the elites of both parties yesterday, but I stand by my belief that she solidified herself in the leadership of the aggrieved Americans who cannot accept the legitimacy of their political opposition.
Obama, on the other hand, is by nature a mediator and a conciliator which is why he is effective as a president calling for national healing (and less successful at every day hand to hand political combat.) He’s the embodiment of all the social changes that freak out the right, and always presented himself as one who can transcend them. But they don’t want the differences to be “transcended”, they want them to disappear. On the other side, a whole lot of other people are desperate to see him to succeed at that and have placed their hopes in his skills to work it through. They embrace the change – and hate the controversy.
And that leaves us in a pickle:
In the long term the country will either adjust and go on as it has or turn into something that’s not worth thinking about. The question we have to ask ourselves is, in this time of economic upheaval and insecurity for most Americans, how is this going to play out in the short term? I honestly don’t know. I’m not sure anyone can “transcend” the politics of these times (and frankly, I’m not sure I want them to be transcended either. There are principles at stake.)
But whatever happens, I doubt this debate will ever truly end. This tension, which becomes more and less acute depending on the times, is a defining feature of our country. For better or worse, those two speeches were equally representative of America.
Maybe so – but if this was dueling speeches, each devastatingly effective for its target constituency, then where does that leave us? But think about it like a basketball game. Sarah Barracuda just got faked out of her shoes. The sneaky bastard with the good moves just dunked again. Yes, you have an angry subset of Republicans who feel unfairly maligned by a society that’s changing in ways they don’t fully buy into. And they’re losing the game. And games like that aren’t pretty at all.
And a word of warning – we’re not a country of what they call good losers. This isn’t going to be nice.