Tuned In

Obama's Speech: Wright or Wrong?

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After any major event of a campaign, a speech or a debate, pundits immediately emerge to answer the question they are incapable of answering: did the candidate do what he/she “needed to do”? What the candidate needs to do in any election, after all, has only tangentially to do with impressing pundits; ultimately, it comes down to the people who vote. (Or, in some cases, the superdelegates.)

So any punditry on whether Barack Obama’s speech this morning on race and his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, reached its goals is beside the point for a couple of reasons. First, because the pundits have lately done such a bad job of anticipating how voters will react. Second, because the pundits will be judging this on the basis of the entire speech, which is how few voters will receive it.

The Wright controversy was another proof of the power of video in elections. The pastor’s controversial statements had been discusssed in the campaign as a potential liability for months; it was only when video snippets turned up–and Wright became virtual kente-cloth wallpaper on Fox, CNN, et al.–that it exploded. Likewise, how Obama’s speech comes across will depend largely on which pieces get YouTubed and excerpted for TV news.

That said, here’s what Obama was, at least attempting to do:

* To acknowledge and condemn Wright without disowning him, meanwhile–the tricky part–relating this to his listeners’ own lives. He made an argument that Americans, unfortunately, can relate to: that they generally have some bigoted skeletons in their closets. He apppealed to the experience of having clergy, friends or relatives who say things that offend you, of hearing things in your breakroom or around your dinner table, that make you cringe. Obama likened Wright to his crazy uncle, or more to the point, our crazy uncle, and compared him with his own grandmother, who he heard make bigoted statements about blacks and others. (This is probably his toughest task. On the one hand, a lot of people can relate to disagreeing with their clergy’s politics. On the other hand, you can’t pick your grandma; you can pick your pastor. Also, there are plenty of people out there who would want him to describe, say, accusing the government of giving black people AIDS as something stronger than “divisive.”)

* To move ahead in race, not to “move past” it. Part of the speech seemed aimed at some of the more high-flown descriptions of his own campaign; no candidate, he said, is going to make America “postracial.” Rather, he tried to sketch a model where Americans acknowledge their race and ethnicity and possibly deal with it a little better.

* To link the speech to the theme of his campaign: specifically, that the process matters along with the issues. (I.e., if we get bogged down in “distractions,” he argued, “I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction.”) [Update: This is, by the way, as much an attempt to critique / run against the media as to challenge voters.]

* To put Wright’s vitriol–and all the rest of the identity-politics baggage the campaign has acquired in the past few weeks–in the context of 20th-century history. Again, a tricky goal, especially because it’s doubtful how many Americans will actually hear the long stretches of the speech that provided the context, linked working-class black resentment to working-class white resentment and threaded it from the Constitution to the civil rights movement to the Reagan era to today.

Whether he accomplished any of this, I can have no idea, because much of that will be decided by the analysis being formulated in green rooms and the snippets being culled in editing bays right now. In the few minutes since the speech ended, I’ve already heard it descibed on cable dismissively as “grating” and hyperbolically as “the most important speech on race in America since Martin Luther King.” [Update: Ana Marie Cox weighs in at Swampland.]

But that’s all noise. What will determine the speech’s success is what parts of it people hear and how they hear it. Did anyone out there hear the speech in full? Do you plan to? Or are you going to rely on the interpretation of idiots like me?