The president delivers his single most accomplished rhetorical performance, and it's one you should watch rather than read.
I think Barack Obama's eulogy yesterday at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was his most fully successful performance as an orator. It was also one that could have come only at this point in his public career--and not, for instance, when he was an intriguing figure first coming to national notice, as he was during his celebrated debut speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston 11 years ago; or when he was a candidate fighting for political survival, as he was when he gave his "Race in America" speech in Philadelphia early in 2008.
I'll explain why I say so, but first a word about the odd circumstances in which I've heard and learned about the speech.
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During the past week's tumultuous events I have been physically and electronically removed from the swirl of news. Through the Confederate-flag aftermath of the murders in Charleston, to the Supreme Court's healthcare and same-sex marriage rulings, to the president's speech yesterday, I wasn't in range of TVs or radios or more than a little trickle of the Internet and thus am catching up on everything all at once now.
Yesterday, on our Cirrus flight down from northern Montana to the Denver area, we were listening to news programs on Sirius XM radio--which is (properly!) designed so that the news/music programming automatically blanks out whenever there's a transmission on the air-traffic control frequencies. We were about 100 miles (or 30 minutes) north of Gillette, Wyoming, where we'd planned to make a refueling stop, when we came across a station playing the memorial service for Reverend Clementa Pinckney. We began listening, and heard the introduction for the president when we were about 20 minutes out.
The closer we got to the airport, the more frequent the air-traffic chatter became. In the final few minutes, it was back and forth: "We do not earn grace. We don't deserve it. It is freely given by God--" "--Cirrus Five-Sierra-Romeo, runway three-four in use, report ten miles out, altimeter three zero two four--" "--We cannot leave our children in poverty." It was only when we'd landed and were rolling along the taxiway to the refueling area, and the controller part of the conversation was done, that Sirius kicked back in with someone singing Amazing Grace. Deb and I looked at each other and thought: Could that have been Obama?
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And of course it was. His singing was the aspect of the speech that will be easiest to remember. That is in part because it was so unusual and in part because it was so brave: Obama sang well, but not perfectly. For someone so precise and aspiring-to-perfection in most other realms of achievement, and so obviously hyper-aware of his levels of skill (he told Marc Maron in his remarkable WTF interview that he didn't like playing basketball any more, now that he recognized that age had made him the weakest player on the court), singing like another enthusiastic parishioner , and not like a featured member of the choir, was brave and said something about his comfort with this crowd.
Here are the three rhetorical aspects of the speech that I think made it more artful as a beginning-to-end composition than any of his other presentations:
-- The choice of grace as the unifying theme, which by the standards of political speeches qualifies as a stroke of genius.
-- The shifting registers in which Obama spoke--by which I mean "black" versus "white" modes of speech--and the accompanying deliberate shifts in shadings of the word we.
-- The start-to-end framing of his remarks as religious, and explicitly Christian, and often African-American Christian, which allowed him to present political points in an unexpected way.
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When I finally watched the speech today, having been aware that it ended with Amazing Grace, I was increasingly surprised by the way in which Obama had built the whole preceding part of the speech toward that conclusion.