Alan Wolfe Reviews Obama's Speech

by | March 18, 2008

We reached out to several friends of the magazine to respond to Obama's big speech in Philadelphia today. Here's what Alan Wolfe, professor of political science at Boston College, had to say.

After his forty-six state victory and moving inauguration day speech, pundits gathered to recall that brief moment back in March 2008 when there had been a sudden flurry of interest in some intemperate remarks that had been delivered by President Obama's preacher Jeremiah Wright. "What was that all about?" they ask each other. The combined forces of a tanking economy and displeasure with the war in Iraq had so motivated the American public to vote into office one of the most impressive presidential candidates in years that the Wright dust-up had been long forgotten.

Will it play out this way? That is beyond my power to know; perhaps Wright's comments will have provided Hillary Clinton with just what she needed to stop Obama's momentum, just as it might feature in the Republican campaign against him should he win the nomination. What I heard today, though, was not a political speech in the sense we have gotten used to in this country. I heard instead a speech that, as much as it was about Obama and Wright, was also about us. Our politics does not quite know how to handle such a thing; campaigns are meant to tell people what they can expect to receive, not to ask them to understand, forgive, and reach out.

The campaign for the Democratic nomination has already gripped the nation for two reasons: It offers either the first woman or the first African-American as the candidate of a major party, and it has been as close as the last Super Bowl. Now we have a third reason for our fascination: We have been asked to reflect in the most serious of ways about the role that race plays in the life of our country. I cannot recall any leader or potential leader in the last two or three decades asking us to do that. I hope we are up to the challenge. I do not believe--nor, from his speech, do I think that Obama believes--that to think seriously about race we have to vote for him.  But I do think that when we address race, we ought to do it, not by running endless videos of people, black or white, who have said outrageous things but by finally having the honest conversation about race we keep promising ourselves--and keep postponing. Agree or disagree with Obama, I ask people who are less inspired by him that I am, but at least acknowledge that in this presidential candidate, we have a man of honor--and an honest man.

--Alan Wolfe

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