A late speech to the nation

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Barack Obama delivered a highly political speech at the funeral service for civil rights activist John Lewis. The ex-president is now in the election campaign. Against Donald Trump


A man talks himself free again: Former US President Barack Obama at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, when he mourned the late Congressman John Lewis. © Alyssa Pointer-Pool / Getty Images

Barack Obama made some important speeches in his life. This inevitably happens when you have been President of the United States for eight years, from 2009 to 2017. It’s part of the job to say something important. Obama did not recommend himself as a speaker for his later office until 2004. When he was only 42 years old at the time, he spoke in Boston at the nomination party convention where John Kerry was elected Democratic presidential candidate. Obama’s speech was so good that Kerry’s was embarrassing compared to her. Kerry did not lose the election against incumbent George W. Bush later. But Obama has been since Democratic convention In 2004 suddenly a politician that the whole country knew. His speech was entitled The Audacity of Hope, the courage – or also: the audacity – to hope. This, the hope, became the main message of his later presidential application, the poster with his stylized portrait and one word Hope underneath it became an icon.

Barack Obama made an important speech in Atlanta on Thursday (he published the manuscript afterwards). A funeral speech for the late black Congressman John Lewis at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church of the congregation who was once pastor of Martin Luther King Jr. It was immediately recognizable as one of the most important speeches in his life, even though Obama was no longer in political office. One that showed him in a previously unfamiliar role: for the first time after the end of his time as president, he became thoroughly political again. Not just by hints or brief comments on everyday political business as before.

Among other things, Obama called for reform of the US electoral law. Every US citizen should be able to vote automatically and no longer have to register laboriously; election day, traditionally a Tuesday, should henceforth be a public holiday so that everyone had time to vote; and Obama called for the end of the long-term speech instrument Filibuster, which is less a parliamentary folklore than a blockade in the US Senate, with which a de facto blocking minority can control and prevent debate topics and votes. These are all demands Obama did not meet during his tenure.

The other is not named

But now someone else is president. Again, Barack Obama did not name him in his speech. He apparently does not want to pay honor to Donald Trump, who once disparaged him with the clearly racist BirtherConspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the United States and therefore did not have the right to hold the office of President of the United States.

In his almost 40-minute speech in Atlanta, Obama also did not mention the name of Trump’s alleged opponent Joe Biden, who will soon be officially announced by the Democrats (you will soon find out what he thinks of Obama’s proposals). This can be understood as a signal: Obama’s demands were clear, but he does not seem to want to be said to have intervened directly as an ex-president in an ongoing election campaign. However, he no longer has to explicitly say that; symbolically, he has long since done so with his public support from his former Vice Biden. Now he lets the actions follow further, bigger words.

In his speech, Obama did not go into the lowlands of an election campaign battle that threatens to become epochally dirty. Just hours before he spoke, Trump tweeted (as if he didn’t want to lose public attention, that is, the world for a minute) in the innocent form of a question wrapped up the idea of ​​postponing the November US election. Because, according to Trump, the election is supposedly uncertain due to the corona crisis and the increase in the proportion of postal voters, yes, it would mean electoral fraud to his disadvantage. The incumbent president flirts with suspending democratic processes. The former, on the other hand, raises the voice indirectly with his demands for electoral reform.

A speech that was only moving

Obama’s speech was remarkable because it was only also was moving, according to the occasion of a funeral. As you can expect from a funeral speech that someone gives to an old friend who, according to Obama, was also a personal role model. John Lewis was the youngest speaker at March on Washington spoken in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 before Martin Luther King Jr. spoke and gave the speech of his life, I Have a Dream; and on the first attempted march by black civil rights activists from Selma to Montgomery, which white Alabama State Troopers brutally stopped, Lewis was seriously injured by them. He was, that’s why his death at 80 is also a turning point, the best-known of those black civil rights activists who used to march with Martin Luther King Jr. Lewis had a powerful voice, as a civil rights activist and later as a politician, but from the beginning as a speaker.

Obama, on the other hand, was not always a brilliant speaker in Germany, which is less well known in Germany. Often as instructive, from above, as distant and professoral. In fact, he only freed himself as a speaker during the course of his presidency, and his changing speechwriters (Cody Keenan, Obama’s last editor-in-chief in the White House, still works for him today) have a tone in the manuscripts that Obama says the editors always strongly edited hit him. Probably the most moving speech as President Obama made in Charleston in 2015, it was also a speech of mourning, in the case of the nine of one white supremacist murdered blacks who the perpetrator had shot in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church there: Obama spoke true in the Singsang cadenzas preachers and used the hymn Amazing Grace as a kind of spoken chorus before he finally started the song after a well-chosen break from art.

Obama spoke there in the function of the healing and unifying: After terrible events, it is up to the leader of the nation to reconcile them with themselves and the horrors of the world, whether they have broken through the USA in the form of man-made or natural disasters.

Obama did not play this role in Atlanta right now, he became accusatory in the political part of the speech before putting the protests after George Floyd’s killing in a historical context with the civil rights movement. However, some of the speech reminded of that in Charleston. Obama once again used the format of the funeral address set by religious tradition as a loose setting, his groove in speaking has received something from gospel worship anyway over the years.

One could now listen to a late master of public speech at a particularly successful lecture. As usual, Obama, who knows how to vary the tempo and volume, mixed this straight soul rhythmization of his lecture with a basic conversation tone that actually sounds like a private conversation: not entirely chatting, but still intimate, so that everyone can feel personally addressed. If it comes down to a punch line, you can guess its arrival beforehand, because Obama increases the speed at the end of a sentence and then pulls into a kind of final sound curve: more beautiful slide, Punch line set and all listeners were well prepared for it.

He never roars suddenly

If it is fundamentally, Obama raises his voice, then he will be surprisingly loud, but with a great start, he will start to lift, he will not suddenly roar like stupid speakers. He did the same in Atlanta, where, as in almost all of his speeches, the most important part came in the last third. The art of speech-building after Obama is to get the arc of suspense about the anecdotal (in the case small scenic memories of John Lewis) for example (Lewis’ historical role for the USA) to the basics (where are they USA now without Lewis) before one releases the tension in the very last sentences, becomes very slow, conciliatory, thoughtful, often surprisingly melancholic.

Obama even apologized for his day-to-day statements in Atlanta, which he shouldn’t have had to do. He had justified every demand from and with the life of John Lewis. It’s a classic Trope of American telling, the individual should never be lost in this huge country, he should always be an actor not only of his own story, but of a larger story, the history of the country itself, in the black tradition, above all, the protective community.

The United States narrative is never finished

It is precisely in its political development that in this archetypal narrative man also becomes a relay bearer in an infinitely long historical arc, movement and direction. They wrote the founding fathers of the country as a mandate in the preamble to the constitution: “to form a more perfect Union” – the story of the United States is never finished, the connection not only of the states in this Union, but of all people should be ever more perfect become. And Barack Obama used this phrase, “to form a more perfect Union” in his speech in Atlanta.

Two other former presidents had spoken before him, first George W. Bush, then Bill Clinton. Both were highly controversial during their terms of office, Clinton was hated by Republicans and persecuted into a hopeless impeachment process, Bush the Democrats (and long since many Republicans) never forgave the war in Iraq. The country has made a kind of peace with both of them, each in a specific way. Both gave very fine, sometimes touching, sometimes humorous speeches about John Lewis in Atlanta. Without any political reference. Bush and Clinton follow the unwritten script that ex-presidents should stop interfering in either small or large politics. Ex-officials have theirs presidential libraries to build and to have books and archive material about yourself filled, for posterity one day to study. Otherwise they like to ride into the sunset, worthy and quiet, you like to watch them go, but the distance has to be increased. Until they can hardly be seen anymore.

Barack Obama, who will be 59 in a few days, has apparently decided not to follow this script. It has long been clear that he has other plans than slowly disappearing on the horizon, for example through his foundation for young people or the Obama’s production deal with Netflix. Since Thursday, however, it has also become clear what he may have intended with this speech: a little less than a hundred days before the presidential election in the United States, he apparently wanted to speak out clearly. If not for Joe Biden, then for an America that looks different from Donald Trump’s.

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