Barack Obama's Pennsylvania speech on Tuesday 18 March still continues to reverberate in the Western press. Matthew Norman, writing today in the Independent, heads his article The audacity of treating voters like adults, and begins:
Wherever the coming months lead along the serpentine and endlessly captivating trail to become the 44th President of the United States, something unforgettable and potentially transformative happened in Philadelphia on Tuesday. A major Western politician talked about the most enduringly incendiary issue of the past half century as if he were addressing adults. If Barack Obama's speech on race has passed you by, find 37 and a half minutes to watch it on YouTube and judge for yourself whether you've ever seen one like him in your life.
In earlier posts, such as Can Obama Write? and Can Obama Think? I discussed Obama's literary talents and the clarity and originality of his political philosophy. My own interest in Obama's progress is partly literary, partly political. On the political side, Joe Klein, the author of Primary Colours, asked rhetorically whether Obama's biography Dreams from my Father was not the best political biography ever written by a politician. I believe it is. I also believe that The Audacity of Hope is a candidate for the most lucid work of political philosophy ever written by a practicing Western politician in living memory.
Looked at in these terms, Obama is something of a monster, by which I mean a being of such unusual features that it is difficult to assess him within the conventional frameworks. He brings together so many talents and virtues in a single character that in certain respects he defies comparison with other politicians. That is what makes his candidacy so arresting.
For what it is worth, I am a long way from believing that intelligence, profound literary capacity, and philosophical lucidity of a high order are certain foundations for a great statesman. Ronald Reagan was not a supremely gifted individual, but he made an extraordinary president (and one whose influence, incidentally, Obama gracefully recognises). Jimmy Carter was a highly intelligent and sensitive man, though his presidency was characterised largely by prevarication and significant historical failure. The alchemy of character and history in the formation of presidents is subtle. It will be both interesting and instructive, on deeper levels than mere politics, to see where they lead Obama.
Matthew Norman, in one of the finest articles I have so far read on Obama's candidacy, and whom I have quoted above, ends his piece as follows:
Barack Obama talked to Americans on Tuesday, as I said, as if they were adults. He did unto them, to adapt a closing line from a speech the commentator Andrew Sullivan called deeply Christian, as he would have them do unto him. Whether Americans have the capacity to respond as adults, or whether they cling to the comforting blanket of sideshows like the ranting Rev Wright, will go as far as anything towards deciding the Presidency.
The deep and complex ramifications of this extraordinary speech will continue to send their waves through the American body politic.