Reader JS files his dispatch from Selma. He might have been the only person in the state to attend both a private breakfast for Hillary and Obama’s speech in the chapel:
Saw Hillary in the morning as part of a breakfast for a 30-40 Alabama Dems. Great event to attend b/c there’s a lot to try to accomplish for HRC at this kind of event: look personable and connect with people, seem in command of a range of issues in front of a more knowledgeable crowd, and particularly because we’re commemorating the Selma march, demonstrate an ability to talk about faith and inspiration in an intimate and moving way.
HRC showed a lot of good and bad when it came to this stuff. Of course, she commanded the issues and generally she seemed confident, relaxed, and likeable (which she was not before she became Senator). But she didn’t quite get there on faith and inspiration. She talked about being a person who has faith and how important it is for democrats to talk about their faith but completed the thought with a joke: she was raised to pray every day but if she hadn’t prayed before, a few days in the White House will make anyone beg for God’s help. She got a chuckle but the joke was misplaced b/c everyone was looking for sincerity. Same thing on being an inspirational leader. HRC said she wanted to inspire people around the country to greater personal achievements and aspirations but highlighted the talk with a joke about how she thought Eisenhower had spoken directly to her fifth grade teacher to push her class to learn math and science. (Are fifth graders that dumb?)
But there was maybe one moment that felt intimate. Joe Reed (famous civil righter from Montgomery) introduced HRC and said in the context of the civil rights leaders who marched in Selma that ingratitude is the greatest sin. Though I’ve heard her talk about a version of this, she spoke pretty movingly about getting up every day and trying to do right by the people who got her to where she is. Made me think she might just need to talk about different values than the ones she’s talking about. She weaved the gratitude theme into a few other topics in the speech and in her responses to questions—showed some nice rhetorical flourish with it.
2 questions and answers worth noting also: (1) can she convert some of the people who seem to have made up their minds a long time ago? (an eloquent way to say what about all the people who hate you?) She spoke well about how the cops in NY didn’t like her at first but she asked them just to let her help them and you won their endorsement in her second race along with 58 of the 62 counties in NY State. Even though she ran against a stuffed animal in her last senate race, the point came through: HRC is an effective, dedicated person who you can’t dislike when she’s got your interests in mind. She’s the sort of person you definitely want on your side. (2) the dems already seem too divided in Congress to accomplish a lot, what would you do to unite them? HRC said maybe she sees it differently b/c she’s in Congress and she thinks the House is very united. Seemed unnecessary to just disagree with a questioner—missed an opportunity to talk about the unifying power of a presidential agenda…
Last thing: when HRC was giving her points some umph, her Chicago accent came out in full force. Sounded great if you ask me. HRC sounded like a person who is from somewhere. It’s worth a mention since apparently she was affecting a southern accent in Selma later that day.
Of course it’s a special treat to see any great speaker in an energetic black church, especially one where MLK gave such fiery speeches. So this was an ideal venue. A small chapel—every seat’s a good seat—majority African American crowd, totally packed (1000+ people listening via speakers outside), even the pulpit was filled to the brim with pastors who all seemed very swept up in the moment. A lot of the crowd was over 35. For all the talk about Obama having trouble with the African American vote, this audience desperately wanted to love him and the number of amens was pretty steady from the beginning and perhaps unjustified while Obama seemed to struggle a little to gain some rhythm (did a lot of reading of the speech throughout). But everyone also seemed pretty surprised by the sheer number of thoughtful points—that this generation of black leaders might feel undeserving of the mantle of their forefathers, the stuff about how oppression creeps into you.
Reading the speech over, it’s interesting the extent to which this was a refutation of a lot of criticisms of Obama: that he’s too inexperienced (Joshua was inexperienced and scared when he lead the Israelites in the promised land), that he may not be black enough for African Americans (interesting (tenuous?) connection between Southern Civil Rights strife and the Kennedys bringing Africans to the US to attend American universities which leads to Obama’s parents having a child—Obama finished this with his a forceful rhetorical flourish—“don’t tell me I’m not coming home when I come to Selma, Alabama”—that he had to shout over the cheering crowd), and that because he’s black at all he can’t win on a national level (Gandhi said before you can change the world you have to change yourself so African Americans have to believe an African American can be president in order to make it a reality). What impresses about all this is that it didn’t feel like a refutation. It felt like we were part of a sermon about principles and inspiration drawn from the civil rights movement and what they mean for a modern African American leader. It did not feel like a campaign speech about why Obama would make a good president. It was purely and passionately demonstrative.
You and I had emailed about how boldly black the speech was. The crowd did not seem at all surprised to hear him talking about Affirmative Action though I haven’t seen him talk about it much before. I was surprised that he seemed so strongly for it and even put a globalization/economic competition spin on it. I don’t know if the crowd was entertaining notions that Obama isn’t black enough before the speech but by the middle of the speech they seemed like they had totally fallen for him. The woman next to me was saying she felt so lucky to be hearing him speak. John Lewis looked moved. The whole place was swept up.
From reading the news reports, it seems Obama was pretty masterful with the theatrical moments that confronted him—e.g. pushing Fred Shuttlesworth across the bridge. Singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ was no different. He sang with his eyes closed and threw his head back. It felt maybe a little Clinton-esque.