Saturday, July 26, 2014

Making a Name For Himself

"There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There's the United States of America."

Barack Obama
July 27, 2004

Sometimes destiny is hard to recognize, even when it slaps you silly.

Until 10 years ago tomorrow night, no one knew who Barack Obama was. Well, some people knew who he was — but it is fair to say that most Americans, probably even most of those who did know who he was, did not know, when they saw Obama on their television screens, that they were getting a preview of coming attractions.

The keynote address he delivered 10 years ago before the delegates at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston has been credited by many with making him president. I disagree. It certainly contributed to his political rise, it gave him national exposure, but I think it is an exaggeration to credit the speech with making him president. He was just a state senator from Illinois trying to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Three years later, he hadn't distinguished himself in the Senate, and he was not the front–runner in the polls when Democrats began holding presidential primaries; Hillary Clinton was.

People often forget that she, too, spoke to the delegates in Boston, who had gathered to nominate John Kerry for president.

But her speech seemed to stir little in the way of enthusiasm. The audience cheered her politely — probably more in gratitude for her husband's presidency than for her contribution, at the time, as a U.S. senator. In a way, perhaps, it foretold what would happen in the Democratic Party when it chose its next nominee.

It is true, as David Bernstein wrote in Chicago Magazine in 2007, that the address "changed Obama's profile overnight and made him a household name," but it is also true that it was not a history–changing speech.

And I would also dispute that it made Obama a "household name" in 2004. That came later.

"It was good, but it was nothing awe inspiring," his press aide, Robert Gibbs, said of Obama's speech. It wasn't until Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 that opinion polling started to show movement in his direction — until then, Hillary Clinton was still the front–runner.

Obama's speech 10 years ago was greeted with enthusiasm, but I honestly don't recall the extent of the positive response that Bernstein did. I suppose there may be something to it; Bernstein's article, after all, was published several months before the Iowa caucus — long before the idea of an Obama nomination qualified as more than wishful thinking.

But I'm inclined to think Bernstein was looking at it from the perspective of sustained candidacy, not necessarily nomination.

"Before the speech, the idea of Obama running for president in 2008 would have been laughable; he was a lowly state senator from Chicago's Hyde Park, and while he stood a good chance at winning his U.S. Senate race, he would enter that powerful body ranked 99th out of 100 in seniority," Bernstein wrote. "After the speech, observers from across the political world hailed the address as an instant classic, and Obama was drawing comparisons (deservedly or not) to Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy."

Now, whether it is true or not, I do fancy myself to be current on politics and what journalists write about things like primaries and conventions and keynote addresses. In the summer of 2004, I did a lot of reading, and I remember reading many accounts of the speeches at both of the major parties' conventions.

And I simply don't remember the kind of reaction that Bernstein did. I mean, come on. King? Kennedy? Really?

Other black politicians have given speeches to national conventions — Barbara Jordan, Condoleezza Rice, Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell — and they didn't make that kind of impression.

Well, except for one.

Jordan was the first black woman to give a keynote address. American Rhetoric ranked her 1976 speech fifth in its list of the Top 100 speeches of the 20th century, behind only King, Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt (twice).

And, although the convention was already set to nominate Jimmy Carter that summer, Jordan did receive the support of one delegate in the nominating ballot. However, I don't recall reading any articles promoting her as a future nominee — in fact, she retired from politics a couple of years later.

Jackson's 1984 address was ranked 12th, and his 1988 address was ranked 49th. I do remember reading some articles promoting Jackson as a future contender for a presidential nomination, but I'm sure I read just as many articles arguing that he should not seek the presidency — not because he was black but because of concerns about having a religious leader in the Oval Office.

Jackson, of course, was not a keynote speaker.

Pundits often refer to keynote speakers as if they are future presidential nominees. In my experience, few have come close to that — so, while there probably were those who, swept up in the excitement of the moment, spoke of Obama as a future nominee 10 years ago, it is likely that most of the people who heard them did not really think it was possible.

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