Incidental Acts of Spontaneous Cerebral Violence

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Putting Elizabeth Berkley into perspective

On the drive to “Showgirls” the other night [that just sounds awful], I listened to KCRW's live coverage of the Democratic Convention speeches. In particular, I was keenly interested to hear Illinois State Senator (and presumptive future U.S. Senator) Barack Obama’s keynote address. To this day, I can still remember how, as a ten-year-old sprawled across our brown shag carpet in front of the family room TV, I was blown away by the power and simple eloquence of Mario Cuomo’s 1984 “A Tale of Two Cities” keynote. I never imagined that anyone, let alone a 42 year-old state legislator in his national political debut, would ever give a convention speech as effective as Cuomo’s. Arguably, Obama’s speech was more powerful. It was, from a political standpoint, certainly more important. Here’s an excerpt:
For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga.

A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.

Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope? John Kerry calls on us to hope. John Edwards calls on us to hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism here—the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t talk about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. No, I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. The audacity of hope!
It simply does not do the speech justice to simply read its text. Go here for access to video of both the highlights and the complete keynote address.

In 1984, buoyed by Cuomo’s outstanding convention speech, Walter Mondale won only his home state and the District of Columbia. Here's hoping that the legacy of Obama’s 2004 speech includes the translation of mere rhetorical power to actual electoral results.

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