The reactions to Barack Obama’s widely celebrated Philadelphia speech have generally fallen into two categories.
First, and most obviously, we’ve been deluged with rapturous and emotional responses, as sometimes tearful commentators described the address as a life-changing, history-making, barrier-busting, altogether unforgettable experience. To TV producer Norman Lear, “Obama reached for the stars. And he found them.” On MSNBC, Sally Quinn hailed the speech as one of the greatest in all human history, then later retreated to proclaim it merely “the greatest in 45 years.” Andrew Sullivan expressed similar enthusiasm, and delivered the verdict that “this searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal and deeply, deeply Christian speech is the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime. It is a speech we have all been waiting for for a generation.”
More analytical comments from political insiders evaluated the speech in a practical perspective, admiring Obama’s deft effort to minimize the damage to his candidacy from the widely-condemned, outrageously anti-American comments by his long-time “spiritual mentor,” Pastor Jeremiah Wright. In this regard, the Senator clearly attempted to end the argument by changing the subject – deflecting questions about his twenty-year involvement in a radical Afro-centric church by broadening the discussion to cover four hundred years of race-relations in America. While even the most cynical observers acknowledged the talk’s soaring ambition and lucid prose, they divided on whether it would achieve its principal purpose by closing the book on the Wright controversy and restoring momentum to the Obama campaign.
Both of the common reactions to the Philadelphia speech – either praising it for its emotional and inspirational impact, or analyzing it in terms of its strategic political consequences – fail to come to terms with its substance, or to recognize the more troubling elements in the address. Barack’s big moment features content that is shamelessly manipulative, blatantly misleading, deliberately deceptive and even dishonest.