When Barack Hussein Obama gave his eulogy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, it was his most successful performance to date.
Obama was well aware that the crowd was far more than the hundreds packed into the arena, he knew many millions around the world would watch it live, and many more would watch it later on.
He took full advantage of the opportunity to push his gun-control agenda. He also sealed the coffin on the Confederate flag.
Like most of Obama’s speeches, this one was not only carefully written, it was masterfully delivered by a consummate performer. Here are the most important aspects of his performance.
Barack Obama on the Confederate flag and discrimination against blacks:
‘For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens. (Applause.) It’s true, a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge — including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise — (applause) — as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. (Applause.) For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now. ‘
‘Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong — (applause) — the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong. (Applause.) It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better, because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races striving to form a more perfect union. By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace. (Applause.) ‘
Barack Obama pushing his gun-control agenda:
For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation. (Applause.) Sporadically, our eyes are open: When eight of our brothers and sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theater, 26 in an elementary school. But I hope we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day; the countless more whose lives are forever changed — the survivors crippled, the children traumatized and fearful every day as they walk to school, the husband who will never feel his wife’s warm touch, the entire communities whose grief overflows every time they have to watch what happened to them happen to some other place.
The vast majority of Americans — the majority of gun owners — want to do something about this. We see that now. (Applause.) And I’m convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions and ways of life that make up this beloved country — by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace. (Applause.)
Barack Obama on racial bias:
Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it, so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs, but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal. (Applause.) So that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote. (Applause.) By recognizing our common humanity by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin or the station into which they were born, and to do what’s necessary to make opportunity real for every American — by doing that, we express God’s grace. (Applause.)
Here are the three rhetorical aspects of the speech that I think made it more artful as a beginning-to-end composition than any of his other presentations:
— The choice of grace as the unifying theme, which by the standards of political speeches qualifies as a stroke of genius.
— The shifting registers in which Obama spoke—by which I mean “black” versus “white” modes of speech—and the accompanying deliberate shifts in shadings of the word we.
— The start-to-end framing of his remarks as religious, and explicitly Christian, and often African-American Christian, which allowed him to present political points in an unexpected way.
A perfect example is Obama’s emphasis on the word grace:
What were the advantages of his emphasizing grace—and not “justice” or “compassion” or “equity” or “opportunity”—as the recurring note of this speech? There were many:
— The president, the most powerful man in the world, could put himself in the closest thing possible to a stance of humility. “We don’t earn grace. We’re all sinners. We don’t deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway.”
— It allowed him to recast one part of the shooting’s aftermath in the most glorious way. When the families of the nine murdered victims told the killer that they forgave him, one undertone of their saintliness was that we might be in for another “noble victim” episode. Black people would be killed or abused; their survivors and community would prove their goodness by remaining calm; and in part because of their magnanimity, nothing would change.
But by characterizing their reaction as a reflection of grace rather than mere “forgiveness,” Obama was able to present it as something much different than patient victim-hood.
— It allowed him to use a genuinely brilliant rhetorical device through the “policy” portions of his speech. The president recited the words to Amazing Grace midway through the speech, before singing them at the end. Including these crucial, closing words: “Was blind, but now I see.”
Obama Singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ it’s painful to watch.
Read the full story by James Fallows of The Atlantic