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Talkin' Selma Blues

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton gave two very different speeches in Selma, Alabama, over the weekend at events commemmorating the Bloody Sunday march 42 years ago .

Obama's speech was halting, filled with boilerplate ("I stand on the shoulders of giants;" "I am the fruits of your labor") and uninspiring - unless you are one of his cultish worshippers who remind me of rock fans so blinded by adulation of their star that they'd wildly cheer a favorite song performed in farts and burps.

Believe it or not, I have no particular interest in who wins the Democratic presidential nomination. I am not supporting Hillary Clinton, nor am I intending to vote for her.

My interest is in merely evaluating the candidates and, especially, the media coverage they receive. And even Obama and his advisers admit the coverage they are getting is over-the-top. (Oh how I wish Obama was everything they say he is! How great would that be? But alas, that's not what I see.)

And so it is again with Selma.

Because if you watch Obama's speech objectively, you must once again call into question the standard assumption that the man is an orator for the ages. Not only was his delivery disjointed, and oddly aloof, but his text was barren.

Obama's speech had two central themes. First, that the Joshua generation had arrived to finish what the Moses generation started. (Jesse Jackson won't make it to the Rose Garden, but I will?) And second, that Obama had a rightful claim to America's civil rights heritage. Meaning, he was Joshua.

As a whole, the speech was really about Obama - a man with a seemingly intense idea about his own destiny who nonetheless chose this moment in Selma to "prove" his worthiness to the civil rights Establishment. In other words, "Yes, I am black enough."

Whether that's a question Obama should ever have to respond to, the experience of his African grandfather being called a houseboy even in his old age actually has very little to do with America's civil rights struggle, and strikes me as a ham-handed way to connect to it.

By contrast, Hillary's theme - "We have a march to finish!" - tied the Selma-era civil rights movement of bloodied but unbowed demonstrators to the present-day denial of voting rights to people of color.

"In the last two presidential elections we have seen the right to vote tampered with, and outright denied to too many of our citizens, especially the poor and people of color," she said. "Not just in Florida, Ohio, and Maryland, but in state after state. The very idea that in the 21st century, African-Americans would wait in line for 10 hours while whites in an affluent precinct next to theirs waited in line for 10 minutes, or that African-Americans would receive fliers telling them the wrong time and day to exercise their constitutional right to vote. That's wrong. It is simply unconscionable that today young Americans are putting their lives at risk to protect democracy half a world away when here at home their precious right to vote is under siege."

In that paragraph, Hillary connected Selma to Florida 2000, Ohio 2004, and America 2007 - as well as the war in Iraq. That, my friends, is a speech. And then she added a policy proscription for good measure.

"I will be reintroducing the Count Every Vote Act, to ensure that every voter is given the opportunity to vote, that every vote is counted, and each voter is given the chance to verify his or her vote before it is cast and made permanent."

She also tied the civil rights struggle to issues of equality beyond voting rights.

"We've got to stay awake," she said, "because we have a march to finish. a march toward one America, that should be all America was meant to be. That too many people before us have given of themselves time and again, to make real. How can we rest while poverty and inequality continue to rise? How can we sleep, while 46 million of our fellow Americans do not have health insurance? How can we be satisfied, when the current economy brings too few jobs and too few wage increases and too much debt? How can we shrug our shoulders and say this is not about me, when too many of our children are ill-prepared in school for college and unable to afford it, if they wish to attend?

"How can we say everything is fine when we have an energy policy whose prices are too high, who make us dependent on foreign governments that do not wish us well, and when we face the real threat of climate change, which is tinkering with God's creation?

"How do we refuse to march when we have our young men and women in uniform in harm's way, and whether they come back, their government does not take care of them the way they deserve?

"And how do we say that everything is fine, Bloody Sunday is for the history books, when over 96,000 of our citizens, the victims of Hurricane Katrina, are still living in trailers and mobile homes, which is a national disgrace to everything we stand for in America?"

That pretty much says it all. Still impressed with Obama's use of the well-worn phrase about standing on the shoulders of giants?

Hillary's speech took the specific to the universal - the civil rights movement frees all of us, and she slyly noted that the marches of Selma made the candidacy not just of Obama, but of herself and Bill Richardson possible.

Obama talked mostly about himself, noting that "my very existence might not have been possible" without Selma.

But like you say on your website, it's not just about you, Barack.

No Elephant in the Room
Didn't any Republicans want to honor the Selma marches?

Truth Squad
* "[Obama] credited the Bloody Sunday civil rights marchers of 1965 with the fact that his parents - a black African father and white Kansas mother - were empowered to fall in love and got married," ABC's Jake Tapper notes.

"They looked at each other and they decided, 'We know that in the world, as it has been, it might not be possible for us to get together and have a child, but something is stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Ala., because some folks are willing to march across the bridge,'" Obama said. "And so they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Ala.!"

"Obama was born in 1961; the Selma march was four years later. Obama said later that he meant to credit the entire civil rights movement with his parents' union, not just the Bloody Sunday marchers," Tapper reports.

* "Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, recalled going with her church youth minister as a teenager in 1963 to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Chicago," The New York Times notes. "Yet, in her autobiography and elsewhere, Mrs. Clinton has described growing up Republican and being a 'Goldwater Girl' in 1964 - in other words, a supporter of the presidential candidacy of Senator Barry M. Goldwater, who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act."

Daleyland
When Obama said "I know if cousin Pookie would vote, and if brother Jethro would get off the couch and stop watching SportsCenter and go register some folks and go to the polls, we'd have a different kind of politics," I could only think of his endorsement of Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose stealth campaign was designed to minimize voter turnout.

Pundit Patrol
Mary Mitchell: "Hillary Clinton's approach to prickly racial issues mirros the way white people in America generally handle race. She doesn't talk about it, and unless she stumbles over a racial minefield, no one asks her to talk about it."

To the contrary, she and her husband have talked about race their whole political careers - from the governship of Arkansas to the White House. Their popularity among African-Americans didn't come out of the blue. By contrast, Obama is still getting to know many of the movement folks the Clintons have known for decades, and has spoken publicly about race far less than they have.

Lynn Sweet: "Bill Clinton displayed his electric star power from the moment he thrust himself into a crowd in front of the Brown Chapel AME Church to the remarks he made upon being inducted into the Voting Rights Hall of Fame - an honor he only officially put on his schedule last Thursday, though I suspect it had been contemplated long before that."

The New York Times noted, though, that ""Mr. Obama also adjusted his schedule, a spokesman said, postponing a fund-raiser in Boston on Sunday evening after learning that the Clintons would be attending the daylong series of events here."

Speech Impediment
Obama didn't seem to fare as well as Hillary speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Chicago last week either.

"Others said Obama, who largely read from prepared remarks, seemed slightly less passionate about the topic than presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, who spoke at AIPAC's national convention last year," the Sun-Times reported.

"He speaks beautifully," Mark Sherman of Northbrook told the paper, "but we don't find a lot of emotion in what he says."

Obama was also lackluster speaking to the Council of Foreign Relations last fall, in a much-anticipated speech about the war that fell flat for lack of anything new - and a similar lack of passion.

Hey, we're not electing a speech club president. But being an inspirational speaker is one of the few strands holding together the rationale for an Obama presidency. Pull on it and there's not much left but his exotic biography - and is that really enough?

-

For more, see the Obamathon collection.



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Posted on March 5, 2007


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