Obama Speech—the View From Elaine's


I happened to catch Barack Obama's big race speech yesterday morn in the odd environs of the Columbia University Journalism School, where I watched it with some of my fellow judges at the National Magazine Awards. The collective verdict of the nation's glossiest editors? Somewhere in the loamy middle between fan-fucking-tabulous and history-changing, once-every-half-century OMG. People were excusing themselves to call their wives … did you watch that? Though the award judging is legendarily secretive, I can exclusively confirm to Hit & Run readers that one person told me that the room was so quiet where he was watching it that even Jacob Weisberg stopped using his Blackberry.

Hopping into an elevator together, a bunch of us agreed that it was a pretty terrific speech*. "But," said one, "we're not exactly the Real America."

This brings up an intriguing point—Obama essentially punted the ball back into America's court yesterday, which is interesting on its own, but all the more so because his Republican opponent will probably not use any kind of code-word race-baiting in this campaign, and in fact will likely condemn his own allies if they do so. That could leave both the dirty political work and the cleansing national conversations to happen outside the realm of high-level presidential campaigning. (It will also probably lead to two candidates bashing the free speech of 527 groups, and competing with one another to see who would ban them quickest.) All else being equal (which it never is), I prefer my vicious and/or clarifying racial arguments taking place from the ground up, not stoked cynically from the top down.

* I thought The Speech was captivating and—yes!—audacious, up until the point he started committing the stump-fallacy of "once we solve X, then we can unleash Y." Especially when moving beyond Culture War race tensions would unite us … uh, against corporations? And in favor of a throw-more-money-at-it approach to the lousy public school system? There's a time and place to empty your gumbo pot of campaign promises; a world-historical race speech doesn't seem to me to be one of them. Though maybe that's just because I disagree with many of his ideas.