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President Obama Delivers Eulogy at Charleston Shooting

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Message James Quandy

What were the advantages of his emphasizing grace--and not "justice" or "compassion" or "equity" or "opportunity"--as the recurring note of this speech? There were many:

-- The president, the most powerful man in the world, could put himself in the closest thing possible to a stance of humility. "We don't earn grace. We're all sinners. We don't deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway."

-- It allowed him to recast one part of the shooting's aftermath in the most glorious way. When the families of the nine murdered victims told the killer that they forgave him, one undertone of their saintliness was that we might be in for another "noble victim" episode. Black people would be killed or abused; they would prove their goodness by remaining calm; and in part because of their magnanimity, nothing would change.But by characterizing their reaction as a reflection of grace rather than mere "forgiveness", Obama was able to present it as something much different than patient victimhood:

"[The killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others] surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. (Applause.) An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation's original sin."

"Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. (Applause.) God has different ideas." (Applause.)

"He didn't know he was being used by God. (Applause.) Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group--the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court--in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn't imagine that." (Applause.)

"The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley--(applause)--how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond--not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life."

"Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood--the power of God's grace." (Applause.)

-- It allowed him to use a genuinely brilliant rhetorical device through the "policy" portions of his speech. The president recited the words to Amazing Grace midway through the speech, before singing them at the end. Including these crucial, closing words: "Was blind, but now I see."

"As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we've been blind."

And from that point on in the speech, he consistently used the "we've been blind / but now we see" pairing to present all the policy points he wanted to discuss. For instance, with emphasis added:

"For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens. (Applause.) It's true, a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge--including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise--(applause)--as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. (Applause.) For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now."

And on throughout the speech. We were blind to a problem; but now through God's grace our eyes have opened; and we can see what we should do. Another example:

"For too long, we've been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation. (Applause.) Sporadically, our eyes are open: When eight of our brothers and sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theater, 26 in an elementary school. But I hope we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day"

"The vast majority of Americans--the majority of gun owners--want to do something about this. We see that now."

If you watch the speech again, note how carefully the "was blind, but now I see" theme knits together its elements. As a matter of composition, this is harder to pull off than you would think. And as a matter of political framing, it may not actually make a difference, but it's as much as a political speech could possibly do to induce people to think about issues in a different way. Appreciate how this approach comes across, versus "you were wrong, we are right."

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Former small business owner now retired.

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