Obama & Palin: A Tale of Two Speeches
Yin and Yang
Michael Shear in the New York Times compares the two speeches yesterday:
“No words can fill the hole left by the death of an innocent, but we do mourn for the victims’ families as we express our sympathy,” Ms. Palin said, looking directly into the camera.
But the purpose of Ms. Palin’s video was clearly to send a different, more sharp-edged message. Just 1 minute and 32 seconds into her talk, Ms. Palin shifted gears, saying she had become puzzled and saddened by the accusations leveled against her and others by “journalists and pundits.”
Disciplined and sophisticatedly produced, the video ended with Ms. Palin’s resolve. “We need strength to not let the random acts of a criminal turn us against ourselves, or weaken our solid foundation, or provide a pretext to stifle debate,” she said. “We are better than the mindless finger-pointing we endured in the wake of the tragedy.”
That message, in truth, was not so different from the one that Mr. Obama delivered 15 hours later in front of more than 14,000 people at the McKale Memorial Center.
“They believed, and I believe, we can be better,” the president said, referring to the victims of Saturday’s shooting. And, like Ms. Palin, he rejected as far too simplistic the idea that political speech, however harsh, was directly responsible for the tragedy.
“If, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation, in a way that would make them proud,” he said.
But what could not have been more different was the tone. Where Ms. Palin was direct and forceful, Mr. Obama was soft and restrained. Where Ms. Palin was accusatory, Mr. Obama appeared to go out of his way to avoid pointing fingers or assigning blame. Where she stressed the importance of fighting for our different beliefs, he emphasized our need for unity, referring to the “American family — 300 million strong.”
In a way, that's unfair. The president has to try to speak for the whole country in a speech like that while Palin is speaking only for her allegedly "victimized" minority, (and truthfully only for herself.) One can imagine a speech in which the president might have said something more forceful, but I'm not sure it could have been this one. The facts don't back up a direct condemnation of wild right wing rhetoric as the proximal cause of this particular tragedy and the president cannot engage in the kind of nuanced discussion the rest of us are having in a speech to the nation. Palin, of course, doesn't have that responsibility, and while I'd hardly call her speech "nuanced" it was part ofthatconversation, not a speech like the one the president had to give last night.
Having said that, I think this is an interesting way to look at the state of American politics. You have an angry subset of Republicans who feel unfairly maligned by a society that's changing in ways they don't fully buy into. It's a strain in American political life that's always been around and perhaps it's because of the nature of America itself --- it's been a dynamic culture from the beginning with lots of immigrants and second chances and social mobility. And there have been sweeping social changes in the past few decades, more changes than a lot of people are able to cope with. This group is fairly represented by Palin, with her "sharp" and "forceful" call to fight for their beliefs and dissent from the consensus. She didn't make any friends among the elites of both parties yesterday, but I stand by my belief that she solidified herself in the leadership of the aggrieved Americans who cannot accept the legitimacy of their political opposition.
Obama, on the other hand, is by nature a mediator and a conciliator which is why he is effective as a president calling for national healing (and less successful at every day hand to hand political combat.) He's the embodiment of all the social changes that freak out the right and always presented himself as one who can transcend them. But they don't want the differences to be "transcended", they want them to disappear. On the other side, a whole lot of other people are desperate to see him to succeed at that and have placed their hopes in his skills to work it through. They embrace the change -- and hate the controversy.
In the long term the country will either adjust and go on as it has or turn into something that's not worth thinking about. The question we have to ask ourselves is, in this time of economic upheaval and insecurity for most Americans, how is this going to play out in the short term? I honestly don't know. I'm not sure anyone can "transcend" the politics of these times (and frankly, I'm not sure I want them to be transcended either. There are principles at stake.)
But whatever happens, I doubt this debate will ever truly end. This tension, which becomes more and less acute depending on the times, is a defining feature of our country. For better or worse, those two speeches were equally representative of America.