Now that I have been assigned to the campaign trail, one of the things I am taking the time to experience as a reporter is the entire speech of a Presidential candidate, not sound bites that have become the standard fare by which most of hear our candidates. Tuesday, it was my first chance to hear Barack Obama from start to finish.
You probably know about the controversy surrounding Obama by now. His pastor has made comments seen as racial, inflammatory and critical of U.S. policy. Critics wondered whether Obama shares those beliefs. Tuesday in Philadelphia, he addressed those concerns in a speech all about race in America.
Did his speech diffuse the controversy and clear up the issue? In my opinion, it did not. After saying he had never sat in the pews and heard such comments from the pastor, he told the assembled audience yesterday that he indeed had heard these things while attending church. He also failed to renounce his association with the pastor, which is what the critics wanted in the first place. That alone guarantee this story will “have legs”, as they say in my business, for a long time.
However, here is what the speech did. It talked about race in America in a frank, open and real way that we rarely see from politicians. While I do have a vested interest in the subject, even I was taken aback by the complexity of the issue as Obama spelled it out. It’s truly ironic that the issue of race in America is not “black and white”. It has many layers, many complications and few simple solutions.
Perhaps nobody spelled out what Obama’s speech meant better than CNN analyst and former White House advisor David Gergen who said about Obama’s speech, “he spoke to us as adults”. That is true. For years, we have tried to simplify this issue and there really is no way to do so. That’s not to say the issue of race cannot be solved, but let’s not try to put a band-aid on an issue which had cut much deeper into our collective psyche.
Will Obama’s address win him the White House? I doubt it. It probably won’t even get him the nomination. Rarely will a subject such as race win someone public office – and if it’s discussed in the wrong way, it can kill your campaign. Also, we will likely forget about it in the days and weeks to come. We still live in the “here and now” as a society. After all, anybody remember how “Super Tuesday” was supposed to decide the race? There’s a lot more campaigning still to come.
We can only hope – and Senator Hillary Clinton touched on this Tuesday – the lasting legacy of this campaign will not be who wins, but rather how we look at race AND gender in our country. This election has already started that process. It’s not that the race or gender card is being played here, but rather the entire deck is being thrown at our feet and we are forced to really face the issue for the first time.