The Common Good

An Historic Speech

Yesterday morning, I started what would become an historic day with my favorite historian. As a young man, Vincent Harding was part of the inner circle of the southern freedom movement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and later became one of the civil rights movement's best chroniclers and interpreters. Vincent has also been a mentor and trusted friend to me and to Sojourners for many years.

Vincent Harding was there at the Democratic Convention in 1964 when the party refused to seat the delegation from the Mississippi Freedom Party, and was close to its leader, famed civil rights activist Fanny Lou Hamer. When he told me that he would be there again this very night, at Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver, to witness the acceptance speech of the first African American to be nominated by any party for the presidency of the United States, he had tears in his eyes. Reflecting on the fact that this day was also the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s most remembered "I Have A Dream" speech, at the historic 1963 March on Washington, was almost too much to believe for both of us.

"When it comes to being a multiracial democracy," Vincent said to me, "We are still a developing country." He went on to suggest that “this would be a real opportunity for a new conversation between white people over these next 69 days.” I wondered how many white Americans are ready to evaluate this young man, Barack Obama, in the way that King had hoped his children would one day be in that famous speech 45 years ago, "Not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” along with Obama’s policy ideas and capacity for leadership.

All the news reports have described well the unforgettable scene with 85,000 people under a clear and warm Colorado sky. There have been only a few other times in my life where I felt like I was actually witnessing history -- such as the inauguration of Nelson Mandela to be the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

But the many impressive speeches, spectacular entertainment, and eye-popping display of fireworks were all overshadowed by the speech. I’ve heard many of Barack Obama’s speeches, from his keynote at the 2004 Democratic Convention, to his address on religion and public life at our Call to Renewal (now Sojourners) conference in 2006, to many of his primary orations. But, as was almost universally recognized by the media commentators, this speech took Barack Obama’s message and campaign to another level. He was inspiring, as he has often been during this presidential campaign, but he also defined his meaning of the “change” he is calling for, more than he ever had before, so voters could either agree or disagree with his vision and policy plans.

Obama made it clear that he was ready and willing to debate John McCain, and yet he also made it clear that he would do so without attacking the character of his opponent. And while he challenged McCain’s record of ideas and leadership, Obama said his opponent was worthy of gratitude and respect from all Americans because of his service and sacrifices for the country. The sincere applause from the huge Democratic audience to Barack Obama's genuine recognition of McCain's patriotism was a high point of the night. I am hoping now to see that kind of applause to the recognition of Barack Obama’s remarkable American story and patriotism at the Republican Convention next week in St. Paul, where I will also be present. For his part, McCain offered a gracious comment on Barack Obama's night in Denver. He said, "Senator Obama, this is truly a good day for America. Too often the achievements of our opponents go unnoticed. So I wanted to stop and say, congratulations. How perfect that your nomination would come on this historic day. Tomorrow, we'll be back at it. But tonight, Senator, job well done."

Indeed, almost every one of the network analysts, across the political spectrum, said Obama’s speech last night was a job well done. David Gergen, a political veteran of both Republican and Democratic administrations and many campaigns and conventions, called Obama’s speech a “masterpiece.” Some of the cable talking heads seemed almost moved to tears, while others wasted no time in deconstructing and dissenting from the content of Obama’s address (all along predictable political lines), but almost no one disagreed that we had just seen a moment of magnificent American political oratory.

It was the kind of speech that could help the American people decide whether they agree or disagree with what Barack Obama proposes for America. My hope is that John McCain will also be evaluated on the clarity of his message and vision.

Once again, the personal story of Barack Obama also came through to a nation eager to evaluate his character, judgment, and leadership. And the picture of the Obama family afterward, on the stage with wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha, provided a hopeful and heartwarming image of what family can be in a nation where so many of our families are unraveling. Both Obama’s ideas and character were very evident last night and throughout convention week, perhaps more so than at any time in this campaign.

Now John McCain has the opportunity to do the same thing next week. My next blog post will be from St. Paul, Minnesota.

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