Back in the 1993 federal election, then-Prime Minister Kim Campbell was quoted as saying that elections are no time to discuss serious issues. (If memory serves, her comment was actually much more nuanced, but was dumbed down to that pithy, sensational and damaging phrase – which kinda proved her point.)
Last week, Barack Obama challenged that idea – with a scope and, yes, audacity that was nothing short of breathtaking – in a speech that seemed entirely out of place in a North American election. Chances are you’ve heard or read excerpts, but as a speechwriter, I can’t urge you strongly enough to read and watch the whole thing.
This was not a speech made for sound bites, although it has one or two choice ones. (“I can no more disown him than…”) Instead of rejecting nuance, this speech embraces it – as any honest, positive contribution to the conversation about a complex and highly charged topic must.
There is a passage of particular interest to communicators, where he delivers a challenge that may prove even more difficult to meet than that of America’s racial divide: a call for a civil, mature discussion of the issue.
We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.
But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.
And he continues, suggesting that the dialogue can be about issues that actually make a difference to people – and that this is what Americans really want.
Heady stuff. Heady enough that I wondered if commentators in the media – who are usually quick to condemn the politics of sound bites and cheap attacks, while consigning any politician who fails to deliver them to thorough obscurity – would rise to it.
The early metrics aren’t promising. Those fine folks at TechPresident used online service TagCrowd to create tag clouds of Obama’s speech and of the “editorial responses of the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal“.
And here are America’s flagship newspapers:
Micah Sifry concludes the TechPresident post this way:
At a first glance, it seems as if our editorial guides can’t help but view the speech as a political ploy, first and foremost. Considering how rarely politicians choose to grapple in depth with hard and divisive issues like race, it’s hard to see how that is the best frame through which to view it. But that is the frame our media system uses to evaluate political speeches, no?
Personally, I think Obama’s speech is a great test of the following question: Are we still living in the age of sound-bite politics, where the sharp attack line, even taken out of context, can become the “truth” of an event or a person thanks to the amplifying and distorting effects of broadcast media? Or are we entering the age of sound-blast politics, where a 37-minute speech can actually be watched, read, and digested by millions of people (a million views already on YouTube!) using the abundant spaces of the internet–and the themes and meanings they encounter and absorb will be not about the “politics” of a speech, but its actual content?
In other words, are we entering an age when politicians can be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character?
Maybe, and I really want to think so – but that age is going to take a while to arrive. I don’t expect a single speech, no matter how great, to change decades of ingrained behaviour. It will take a determination by politicians to consistently respond with courage, substance and integrity to challenges such as the one Obama faced with Rev. Wright’s comments – and a willingness by leaders in the media to stop complaining about politicians who lack substance on Monday and punishing those who don’t on Tuesday.
But when the week starts with Fox News asking if Bill Richardson is playing the race card by growing a beard, the situation doesn’t look all that hopeful.