Well, that was one of the all-time great American speeches, that eulogy President Barack Obama delivered today at the funeral of the Rev. Pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was gunned down last week by a rampaging hate-filled racist. It was so great that it momentarily stirred us out of the parochial swamps of our New Jersey existence to lend – for just a few moments between rage-filled highway jockeying – a toxic-ravaged ear.
Obama through the years has used his oratorical gifts to fashion many fine examples of American rhetoric. Some of his words have merely underscored the distance between the President’s platonic world of forms and the reality of a deeply divided and politically embittered country. But his eulogy today went beyond anything he’s ever said, or extended the best of what he’s said into one line of intellect and heart, manly bearing and song, accomplishing the extraordinary feat of linking not just American to American but the American experience to our mystical heritage of human life and human struggle and the transformative power of God’s grace.
Sure, that last sentence just caused two dozen people to reach for the remote. Indeed, our own reluctance to tune into the speech at the urging of another yielded painfully, resistant as we are to the elixir of words from a public man when we quietly crave, to quote Shakespeare’s King Henry V, “the action of the tiger.”
But this stood out and stood forth. This was not a speech but action disguised as a speech, the way the best of Shakespeare’s speeches are not theater or poetry but sheer force.
No president has ever spoken this way, or powerfully built a speech to the point of being able to justify breaking into actual hymn, as the President did when he sang – beautifully – Amazing Grace.
As Obama paid homage to the fallen man of God, a man killed with members of his flock while they on that fateful day prayed for His mercy, the President’s eulogy simultaneously underscored his own impassioned argument for a more deeply unified United States, the message of his first address to the nation at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which, in the day to day mechanical and political conveyor belt of now, has arguably tragically eluded much of his stewardship of the country.
Part of the power of the speech came from the President’s insistence on his commitment to standing up against ongoing injustices. He identified the Confederate Flag that flies from so many public buildings in the South, a painful symbol for many Blacks. “Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an act of political correctness,” he said. “It would not an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.” He spoke of a divide in this country as old as it is wrong. “Maybe we now realize the way a racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs, but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal,” he said.
The eulogy, of course, came a day after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Obamacare, and on the day the Court enabled marriage equality in all 50 states, part of the core of this President’s legacy.
Amid so much cynicism and heartbreak, urban strife and murder, and the criticisms, for example, of Bernie Sanders newly realized as the Democrat running to succeed Obama said earlier this month the President failed to galvanize people after his stunning 2008 victory, Obama sounded today a persistence and consistency and hope for wholeness that only a steadily beating belief could manifest.
It’s been torn apart, mashed and paved over perhaps too many times since Camden’s own Walt Whitman wrote about it; it was nearly unblemished when that bearded poet offered it to Lincoln, but if we can find it here in the great Garden State, there’s a sprig of laurel somewhere for Obama after this one.
Mr. President, Amen.