President Obama’s Farewell Address

Posted on January 13, 2017. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Presidential farewell addresses are fairly predictable. They are dramatic, emotional, and long. But sometimes they are very important, because they shine a clear light on how our highest leader thinks about the United States, his analysis of what is good and bad about the nation, and how he wants us to think about it. You may recall our series on the first farewell address, from George Washington, and  our series on Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address. Both are instances of important farewell addresses. Both warn the American people against dangers and urge them to preserve what America stands for (though they could not possibly be more different in how they define each of those categories).

Now Barack Obama has delivered his farewell, and we feel it is important, partly because of the president giving it, and partly because of the president about to follow him. Here is the first installment in our close-reading (we take our text from the official White House transcript, omitting only the times it tells you people applauded [“Applause”]):

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, Chicago! It’s good to be home! Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you. All right, everybody sit down. We’re on live TV here. I’ve got to move. You can tell that I’m a lame duck because nobody is following instructions. (Laughter.) Everybody have a seat.

—Right away we see Obama doing something different: he’s the only president since Lyndon Johnson to give his Farewell Address in front of a live audience (Johnson gave his as part of his last State of the Union Address in 1969). Presidents before TV generally saw farewell addresses as literary artifacts: they were published without ever being delivered as speeches. Presidents in the radio age gave their addresses over the radio. And with the exception of Johnson, presidents in the TV age gave their addresses on TV. There is usually no call-and-response between president and audience. Here, we see Obama responding to the audience, and we deleted about a half-dozen references to applause.

Why the actual speech? There seem to be two possible or likely answers: first, Obama enjoys talking to a live audience; second, it was particularly important for him to see the faces of his supporters (since people who do not support him would be unlikely to show up at this event). He has always expressed great affection for and closeness to his supporters, and as he hands off the presidency to someone who clearly does not like Obama supporters, Mr. Obama wanted to “be with them” one last time as president. This jibes with the overall optimism of Obama’s message; he seems to have wanted to bolster the mood and hopes of those who look forward to Trump’s presidency with dread. It’s far easier to do this in person, where you can gesture and laugh and walk around a little—not things you can really do as well on TV.

My fellow Americans, Michelle and I have been so touched by all the well wishes that we’ve received over the past few weeks. But tonight, it’s my turn to say thanks.  Whether we have seen eye-to-eye or rarely agreed at all, my conversations with you, the American people, in living rooms and in schools, at farms, on factory floors, at diners and on distant military outposts — those conversations are what have kept me honest, and kept me inspired, and kept me going. And every day, I have learned from you. You made me a better President, and you made me a better man.

So I first came to Chicago when I was in my early 20s. And I was still trying to figure out who I was, still searching for a purpose in my life. And it was a neighborhood not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.

AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

THE PRESIDENT: I can’t do that.

AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

—It seems odd to us that people began to chant “four more years” at this point. It’s something Americans do, but not usually this early in a speech, and not usually until the president says something about what he’s accomplished in office. Here, Obama has made only  a fairly boilerplate statement, so far as presidential speeches go, about what he’s learned from the American people, and just begun to talk about his early years (something almost every address since Reagan seems to do). And even this reminiscing, so far, is pretty standard—talking about the dignity of hard-working Americans who meet challenges bravely.

Maybe people’s emotions were sparked because the president speaking is black, and for the first time, so are the working people dealing with struggle and loss. Obama will address this openly later in the Address, when he says (in so many words) that “hard-working Americans” has become a code for “white Americans”. But as a young black organizer, Obama met with black Americans who struggled but possessed dignity and faith, and he recognized them as real Americans. This may have hit his audience and led them to cry out for four more years of a black president.

Next time: the most important thing any president, any American, could say

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Optimism is the true moral courage: Shackleton and Obama

Posted on January 13, 2009. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

I just got around to reading Clarence Jones’ article on the upcoming Obama inauguration. In it, Jones, an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., makes a profound and wonderful statement:

“Dr. King had an abiding belief in the basic goodness, fairness and decency of America. He never abandoned his confidence that a majority of Americans would ultimately embrace the precepts of our Declaration of Independence: That all persons are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

The power of King was that he didn’t say America needed to do something new, to become another people, to end racism. He didn’t say that racism was part of the fabric of America, the legacy of America, the nature of Americans. King said racism was un-American, that it contradicted our basic founding principles, and that racism turned us into another, lesser people. King had the founding principles and documents of the United States on his side, and he knew it. He called for a return to our true nature and our original commission. He denounced racism as having no part in the American experience, and not worthy of us as Americans.

So rather than angrily or cynically dismissing our founding principles as lies and shams, King demanded that we all live up to them. And he won, because he was right.

I’ve noted elsewhere that Barack Obama shares this quality of King’s; he believes in the founding principles of this nation as the best thing about us, and, when we live up to them, the only thing that gives us integrity in the larger world.

My title comes from Ernest Shackleton, the Irish explorer to Antarctica whose 1914-1917 expedition is the stuff of legend. His ship, the aptly named Endurance, was trapped in ice and eventually crushed. For 10 months, Shackleton and his crew waited for a thaw, and once the ship was gone, spent four months drifting in the open ice on an ice floe until they hit land at Elephant Island. Knowing they couldn’t survive there for long, Shackleton took a small crew in a modified whaleboat they had saved on the floe and rowed 800 miles across the Antarctic Ocean to land, then marched for three days and nights through the ice mountains of South Georgia Island to a whaling station. He briefly rested, then took a whaling ship back to Elephant Island to rescue the rest of his crew. There was not one life lost.

When an astonished reporter, much later, asked Shackleton whether he believed any of the men he had left at Elephant Island would survive for his return, expecting that Shackleton would admit that of course he had not, Shackleton replied of course he had. “Optimism is the true moral courage,” he said, meaning that if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you will fail, because you will not have the strength of mind or body to succeed.

Obama is an example of that optimism. Belief in our founding principles in the face of their distortion is true moral courage. Believing we can live up to our principles allows us to do so. From King to us, that is the message for all Americans.

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The Great American Experiment

Posted on November 16, 2008. Filed under: Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

America is an experiment. From the time of its first white settlement, America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who became landowners or lawyers or independent merchants. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.

During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.

On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?

America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

As we think today about what divides Americans, I think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.

Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant veterans built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. To define those ancestral Americans as merely white or straight or Christian strips them of their most stunning feature, their near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America.

Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere. Barack Obama is such an American, and his election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.

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We all have a dream

Posted on August 29, 2008. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , |

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

This could have been Barack Obama’s opening line at the DNC on August 28, 2008, as he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for president. But it was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s opening line on August 28, 1963, as he addressed the Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

That 1963 gathering was a “demonstration for freedom” because Americans of all backgrounds met to demand the fulfillment of our nation’s founding principles of freedom of opportunity and justice for all. The 2008 gathering was also a demonstration for freedom, because again Americans met to demand that our nation’s leaders respect and obey the Constitution and Bill of Rights when governing.

But it was also a demonstration of freedom, of the enormous progress this country has made since 1963. In that year, if you had said that in 45 years, within the lifetimes of most of the people there at the Lincoln Monument, a black American would be close to winning the presidency, you would have been ridiculed. Few could have believed that King’s three little children would live to see a black American close to becoming president (by narrowly beating out a heavily favored female candidate; throwing that in would have made people in 1963 wonder what parallel universe was coming). It wouldn’t have been cynicism or despair that fueled the disbelief, but a pragmatic understanding of how much would have to change to reach that moment.

So a lot has changed. But, more accurately, Americans have grown and evolved, challenged their own prejudices, and worked for change. It’s true that some Americans simply submitted to change, others grudgingly went along with change, and others refuse to change.

But even more miraculous than those who worked hard for change are those who were simply born into it. Americans born in 1990 find it hard to believe that restaurants were really segregated, that they wouldn’t have gone to schools filled with kids of all races, that mixed-race marriage was once illegal. Much as they can’t believe you once couldn’t talk about homosexuality, let alone have gay TV or movie heroes, American young people can’t believe racism was once government policy.

Are many young Americans still racist? Sure. But for most Americans, racism is becoming more and more a personal thing, a private prejudice that one might feel comfortable sharing only with a few others, or expressing obliquely. Like sexism, and homophobia, racism is becoming something fringe, that only a radical element is willing to pronounce publicly. Rather than having one’s racism comfortably mesh with a full personality, now if one is publicly racist, at the office or on the stump, one is labeled a wacko and marginalized.

Nineteen sixty-three was indeed not an end, but a beginning. Beating racism underground to a shameful lair in the soul is just the start. But we can celebrate our progress. Barack Obama’s nomination is a watershed we can act on to destroy racism. Children born in this year will find it hard to believe a black American had never been nominated by a major party for president until 2008, because by 2026 it will be a commonplace. Women, gay Americans, Jewish and Muslim Americans will all be able to become president. This is a moment to push more change, and it would be fatal, as Dr. King said, to overlook the urgency of the moment.

Does that sound ridiculous? As ridiculous as saying in 1963 that a black American would be the Democratic candidate for president in 2008?

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Warren Harding and his “Negro” percentage

Posted on June 12, 2008. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , |

Someone somewhere has once again rolled out the old story of President Warren Harding (1921-23) having a great-grandfather who was black.

John McLaughlin apparently barged into the comments of a guest on his news show “The McLaughlin Group” who was expressing excitement about Barack Obama running for president by saying, sternly and loudly, “You act like there’s never been a black president before.” As the guest paused in confusion, McLaughlin shouted, “Warren Harding was a Negro!”

Why he chose to say “Negro” is unclear. Suffice it to say McLaughlin looked absolutely crazy when he said it. But the saddest thing about his comment is that now people will once again pointlessly debate whether one of Harding’s great-grandfathers was black (something that should be pretty easy to prove or disprove).

I find this at once sad and hilarious because it gets all of us 21st century modernites talking and thinking like 19th century quack doctors. Grown, modern American adults start talking about what “percent” black blood Harding may have had, what “percent” of black blood makes you black, etc.

While you can have percentages of ancestors (for example, one can say “50% of my ancestors were black, 20% were Chinese, and 30% were white”), you cannot have a percentage of blood. The blood in a body is not 50% or 10% or 1% anything but blood.

It’s also sad and hilarious, but more sad, that Barack Obama, whose father was black, is not considered black by some Americans, while Harding, who may or may not have had one multiracial great-grandfather, is considered black therefore by some Americans.

What we all are is 100% American, and presidents should be judged on how well they uphold our founding principles, and nothing else.

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The Second Amendment does NOT protect private gun ownership

Posted on April 13, 2008. Filed under: Second Amendment | Tags: , , , , |

Let’s go out on a limb here to state the obvious.

How does it read? “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

A well-regulated Militia. Not a well-armed citizen.

This Amendment is clearly meant to protect the right of the citizen to own a gun to use in military service. You keep your Arms so that you can serve in the Militia. This was written when the main form of defense was state and local militias, for which you needed your own gun.

Now, we’re not strict-interpretation-of-the-Constitution people here at the HP. We believe the Constitution is flexible and can be read in new ways. But this Amendment seems so clearly to be about protecting a volunteer military—to be about military service—that to extend it to people who want to be able to carry guns into a bar or a supermarket, or keep them in their glovebox, is clearly untenable.

The Second Amendment does NOT encourage or demand that average citizens keep guns in their homes for any reason. It does not mention hunting. It does not mention personal defense. It is strictly about maintaining a national army.

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