He has conquered the racial divisions that ruptured this country for
generations, it appears, and good for that. He is the sign of racial
But there’s another divide, virtually unnoticed or at least,
unspoken of, and we’re about to learn more about where that one stands.
Peggy Noonan treads where almost no one in the media has gone so far in
this column, in asking some questions about the candidate Barack Obama beyond the magnetic persona.
Here’s the first point:
When you watch an Obama speech, you lean forward and listen and think, That’s good. He’s compelling, I like the way he speaks. And
afterward all the commentators call him “impossibly eloquent” and say
“he gave me thrills and chills.” But, in fact, when you go on the
Internet and get a transcript of the speech and print it out and read
it–that is, when you remove Mr. Obama from the words and take them on
their own–you see the speech wasn’t all that interesting, and was in
fact high-class boilerplate. (This was not true of John F. Kennedy’s
speeches, for instance, which could be read seriously as part of the
literature of modern American politics, or Martin Luther King’s work,
which was powerful absent his voice.)
Noonan knows presidential speechwriting.
It’s good, and compared with Hillary Clinton and John
McCain, neither of whom seems really to enjoy giving speeches, it comes
across as better than it is. But is it eloquence? No. Eloquence is deep
thought expressed in clear words. With Mr. Obama the deep thought part
is missing. What is present are sentiments.
I can hear the gasps now, how could anyone say something like that about Barack Obama? Give the column a fair reading. Noonan herself is eminently fair. She gives our issues deep thought.
Our country can be greater, it holds unachieved promise,
our leaders have not led us well. “We struggle with our doubts, our
fears, our cynicism.” Fair enough and true enough, but he doesn’t dig
down to explain how to become a greater nation, what specific path to
take–more power to the state, for instance, or more power to the
individual. He doesn’t unpack his thoughts, as they say. He asserts and
keeps on walking.
So his draw is not literal eloquence but a reputation for eloquence that may, in time, become the real thing.
But his big draw is this. In a country that has throughout most of
our lifetimes been tormented by, buffeted by, the question of race, a
country that has endured real pain and paid in blood and treasure to
work its way through and out of the mess, that for all that struggle we
yielded this: a brilliant and accomplished young black man with a
consensus temperament, a thoughtful and peaceful person who wishes to
lead. That is his draw: “We made that.” “It ended well.”
People would love to be able to support that guy.
Great numbers do, greater every week, it seems.
Right now Mr. Obama is in an awkward moment. Each day he
tries to nail down his party’s leftist base, and take it from Mrs.
Clinton. At the same time his victories have led the country as a whole
to start seeing him as the probable Democratic nominee. They’re looking
at him in a new way, and wondering: Is he standard, old time and party
line, or is he something new? Is he just a turning of the page, or is
he the beginning of a new and helpful chapter?
Well put. She is venturing into unchartered waters now.
His problem was, is, his wife’s words, not his, the
speech in which she said that for the first time in her adult life she
is proud of her country, because Obama is winning. She later repeated
it, then tried to explain it, saying of course she loves her country.
But damage was done. Why? Because her statement focused attention on
what I suspect are some basic and elementary questions that were
starting to bubble out there anyway.
Which leads to that other divide in this country, one that Noonan
identifies, defines, and probes. I don’t think anyone else has asked
these questions yet.
Michelle Obama seems keenly aware of her struggles, of
what it took to rise so high as a black woman in a white country. Fair
enough. But I have wondered if it is hard for young African-Americans
of her generation, having been drilled in America’s sad racial history,
having been told about it every day of their lives, to fully apprehend
the struggles of others. I wonder if she knows that some people look at
her and think “Man, she got it all.” Intelligent, strong, tall,
beautiful, Princeton, Harvard, black at a time when America was trying
to make up for its sins and be helpful, and from a working-class family
with two functioning parents who made sure she got to school.
That’s the great divide in modern America, whether or
not you had a functioning family, and she apparently came from the
privileged part of that divide. A lot of white working-class Americans
didn’t come up with those things. Some of them were raised by a TV and
a microwave and love our country anyway, every day.
Bingo. That’s it. “That’s the great divide in modern America, whether or not you had a functioning family.”
That subject has come up in a number of cultural stories lately. It
came up in the Oscar nominated movie “Juno”. Young adults today are, by
and large, the survivors of abortion and divorce. Dysfunctional
families. This has nothing to do with race and everything to do with
everyone having “an equal shot”. And loving the country that provides
No one knows what lies in the hearts of others. But for those who would be president, we should find out.
(Added note: As I finish this post, I hear over my shoulder pollster
and political analyst Frank Luntz on a tv news show saying that Hillary
Clinton is being held to a higher standard than Barack Obama.
Instinctively, I’m wondering why. Is that fair?)