Those who cross the thresholds of history are challenged to provide the words worthy of the moment for a speechless world.
"One small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind."
"December 7, 1941 —a date that will live in infamy."
"The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans."
Even God Almighty had something to say upon creating the universe: "Behold, it is very good."
This post-racial, post-partisan president-elect met the challenge by channeling Martin Luther King. Listen for the echoes of "I Have A Dream"
America did something on Tuesday that was once political science fiction. A nation which originally denied citizenship to non-whites has elected an African-American to the highest office in the land. And so it was Barack Obama's turn to marry this moment to his words.
Let's remember: Barack Obama's presidency-elect effectively began four years ago with a speech that made the whole world stop and exclaim "OMFG!" This set off a OMFG!-speech > OMFG!-victory > OMFG!-speech dynamic that reached its conclusion when he took to the podium on this electric election eve. Could Barack Obama manage to top himself yet again? By all evidence, he huddled with his speechwriters and said to them "Yes we can!"
This post-racial, post-partisan president-elect met the challenge by channeling Martin Luther King. Read this stirring conclusion to Dr. Kings final speech delivered the day before he was shot —and listen for its echo in Obama’s words last night:
Martin Luther King: "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land."
Barack Obama: "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But America I have never been more hopeful that I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you we as a people will get there."
Dr. King: “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Barack Obama: “This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.”
The speech as a whole met the high standards of Obama eloquence but even more memorable than the quotable lines was the narrative device that told the larger story. He recounted the 20th century by way of Ann Nixon Cooper, a woman of one hundred and six. After looking back at the progress of the twentieth century through her eyes, he turned our attention to the century ahead and the unimaginable progress today's children might see. By the time he was done, this powerful device proved that sometimes the most resonant sound bites aren't sound bites at all.
Ironically, it was John McCain who took on this demarcation in America's racial history most overtly. "This is an historic election,” he said. “And I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight," Borrowing from his finest moment at the Al Smith Dinner, he reminded us of the day it was once an outrage to invite a black person to dine at the White House.
McCain's best instincts emerge at these most difficult moments. This concession speech was both a tribute to his opponent and a valedictory to his lifetime of service to the country. While McCain was at his most gracious, it was his audience who had the tin-ear, booing the president-elect and mindlessly yelling "USA! USA!" when they should have been exalting the name of John McCain. Watching his uneasy relationship to those who gathered to hear his speech, it was clear that he is man who never found his right audience. But as he departed the national stage, John McCain was in full command of his best voice.