Two Men.  Two Speeches.


Preeminent historian and scholar, Gary Wills, writes an extraordinary and lucid essay on why Rev. Wright is to Obama what John Brown was to Lincoln during the latter's first run for the presidency. It's an essay on "Two Men. Two Speeches," about the likeness between Obama's candidacy and Lincoln's (both gangly, both Illinoisians with mainly provincial political experience), an essay about two presidential candidates facing down "damaging charges…of an alleged connection with unpatriotic and potentially violent radicals," and who did so with complex, unprecedented speeches before either had secured his party's nomination. Wills dissects the central tenets of Lincoln's speech and follows it up with a dissection of the nuances of Obama's speech:Obama denounced the specific statements of Wright that were indefensible. "They expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country." They were "not only wrong but divisive." That is, they hurt the cause of joint progress on which Obama based his campaign. As Lincoln said of Brown, Obama made it clear that Wright's approach just could not work…But if Obama did not go into the specific outrages of Wright, his criticism of him was profound and instructive. He praised the concern for the community that Wright had shown. That has always been a mark of black religion in America. Unlike the Calvinist stress on individualism, on the private experience of being saved, blacks thought in terms of the whole people being saved—all of them riding on the Ark, all reaching the Promised Land. This journey of the people is deeply embedded in the spirituals. As Jacob wrestled the angel till the break of day, "and never let him go," so:I hold my brudder wid a tremblin' hand; I would not let him go! I hold my sister wid a tremblin' hand; I would not let her go!It was this aspect of black religion that impressed Abraham Lincoln, who became an instant friend of the former Sunday school teacher Frederick Douglass. Lincoln's Second Inaugural would eloquently argue that the whole people had sinned in slavery, was being punished together, and would repent and be saved together.Obama's speech has been almost universally praised and compared ad nauseum to speehces made by previous presidents (FDR, JFK), but Wills makes clear in this essay that Lincoln's Cooper's Union speech is the most apt comparison. Highly recommended.

In These Times August 2022 Cover
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