Columns 2008

Obama’s speeches move us to be better than we are

Hillary Clinton seems to have a problem with the inspirational aspect of Barak Obama’s campaign. She wants details. That’s funny coming from a woman whose husband once said, “There is nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what is right with America.” Sometimes politicians forget that it’s not just the nuts and bolts of a plan that change the landscape. Sometimes it’s the words used to inspire a people to be better than they are, to achieve goals they thought impossible.

All the great leaders of history have known that this is an integral part of leading. Is there anyone who made it through school without hearing Churchill’s stirring words as England faced the might of Nazi Germany virtually alone?  Churchill had little to offer at that point but words. But oh the power of those words!

“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

I can’t read those words even today without feeling a chill down my spine.  They were meant to energize a country facing a dark and iffy future. Instead of giving them a detailed defense plan, Churchill gave them words that stirred the English people to greatness during the darkest days of the blitz – words of hope, courage and defiance in the face of all that Hitler could throw at them.

Hillary Clinton, a policy wonk if there ever was one, has some detailed programs to offer. When she and Obama meet in debates on substantive topics, she can match him point for point. So I can understand how frustrating it must be for her to watch him catch the wind and soar on the fluid melody of his words.  Hillary, try as she might, is simply not an inspirational speaker on the level of Barak Obama.  What he does effortlessly, she cannot achieve with all the practice in the world.

And so maybe it isn’t fair that he came out of seemingly nowhere to take the wind from her sails with his rhetoric. But America today thirsts for the words he offers – words that urge us to come together and be better than we’ve been. After too many years of hateful, divisive politics in which no standard was too low to achieve, this country longs for a leader to inspire it. We have the chief decider right now whose message to us after 9/11 was to go out and spend money.  I don’t know about you, but I wanted something more than being told to go to Costco and spend a little more on extra large packs of paper towels. I longed to be challenged to greatness and was instead sent shopping.

The sad thing is that Hillary comes across as looking somewhat petty and petulant when she mocks Obama’s calls for this nation to unite and be great again.  She’s right that words alone won’t do it. She’s right that Obama needs to have plans with details that show they are workable. But she’s playing the fool if she thinks that mocking his charismatic speeches of hope will help her cause. 

I want more, not less, of those words.  For far too long we’ve had to travel back to JFK’s inaugural speech or Ronald Reagan’s morning in America speech to find inspiration.  We need a leader today who asks us to give to our country in more ways than a buying spree in Nordstrom’s.  If Barak Obama is cleaning Hillary’s clock because of his speeches, he is doing nothing neither more nor less than great leaders have done since time immemorial. He is using the power of words to move a nation.

As I finish this column, I have no idea of the results of Tuesday’s primaries. Maybe Hillary pulled it off. Maybe Obama smoked her. Either way, I can only hope that Obama will continue to call this nation back to greatness, will continue to push a message that forces us out of our comfort zone, will continue to excite our youth about the political process.  Even if he doesn’t win the nomination or doesn’t win the election, if he does that much, he deserves a nation’s gratitude for reminding us that we should always strive to be better than we are.