The Newtown Speech in Historical Context

President Obama’s speech tonight in Newtown, CT was the best of his political career. Every word was heartfelt and courageous; he consoled a grieving community, but was entirely unafraid to talk about the bigger – dare I say it – political picture. Read the transcript for yourself, but to my ears, a big portion of the President’s remarks implicitly advocated for a big push on gun control legislation. This came as a surprise to many, and on Twitter and television, people of all stripes have begun to ask where this speech – in light, particularly, of the aforementioned section –  might stand in the annals of presidential rhetoric. Many are comparing it to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which rings true for me largely on structural grounds. While at least 10 minutes longer, President Obama’s speech was striking in its brevity, and it had the same humble effectiveness that the Gettysburg Address did. An intriguing parity for sure, but the speeches are starkly different substantively.

I think the best comparison is to Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 speech on voting rights legislation. While significantly longer (more than 45 minutes in total), Johnson’s remarks share a lot substantively and contextually with President Obama’s. Johnson also spoke mere days after a tragedy; a week before his address to Congress, 600 marchers had been beaten and attacked with tear gas by state police as they walked peacefully across a bridge in Selma, Alabama. The images shocked the conscience of the nation, and Johnson used that shock to channel political energy for what would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965:

What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America…it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

One paragraph from President Obama’s speech seemed strikingly similar to me:

There have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, all across America. We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

Both men addressed a nation in shock, and both men elected to address a tenuous political issue in response. Johnson took on the last untouched bastion of racial discrimination, voting rights, and President Obama seems to be preparing to take on gun control.

Both speeches are also intensely personal. While Johnson enumerated clear policy aims, the most moving portion of his address came when he described his work as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas:

My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school…My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry…Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child…I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance—and I’ll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it.

President Obama’s rhetoric on parenthood was similarly evocative:

This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged…And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.

Neither man feared the cries that they were “politicizing a tragedy.” They understood that in moments of great sadness, Americans look for more than sympathy from their leaders. They look for action.

Every once in a while, at home or in the car, I pull up Johnson’s speech on my iPhone. His words remind me of the moral courage our greatest leaders can deploy when they need to, and the incredible power such displays can have. It never ceases to amaze me how much passion Johnson displayed that night. As long as I’ve listened to the speech, I’ve regarded it as a uniquely fervent address by an American president. Now, more than 45 years later, it finally has some competition. I hope President Obama’s words will have a similar impact on our politics in the weeks and months ahead.

Robert Caro first drew my attention to Johnson’s speech in an August 2008 opinion piece. It is definitely worth a read. 

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Who You Callin’ Out of Touch?

The Times makes a great point in a short piece on Mitt Romney’s continued refusal to release additional tax return: the former Massachusetts governor is displaying an unusual level of stubbornness in repeatedly refusing to release additional tax returns. He also can’t seem to find a solid argument for his position, especially with the cloud of uncertainty about the exact date of his retirement from Bain looming overhead. Regardless of context, Romney’s latest contention – that releasing more returns might leave his tax records open to distortion – is completely without merit. It’s not only bad politics (it makes him look, in Boston parlance, wicked shady), but it also denies Americans one of their fundamental rights as voters: to receive complete information, as fraught with complexity and contradiction as it may be, and evaluate it for themselves. Romney spends a lot of time painting President Obama as an out of touch elitist, but the former governor’s unwillingness to let voters consider the merits of various arguments about the meaning and relevance of his tax records speaks volumes about his respect for the nation’s electorate.

Update: A slight expansion of my thinking on the optics of Obama’s decision is here

Cross-Posting: “A Secret Memo, A Secret Panel, A Novel Process”

As you might know, I’m blogging now over at the Carlisle Policy Forum and at Blog Divided. I’m going to try and cross-post what I write over there occasionally, just to give you an idea of what I’m doing. In this case, I’m passing along a post I put up on Sunday night about the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki. Since then, it has received some interesting attention from a former assistant secretary of state and Princeton professor and from The Week magazine. There are some other perspectives in the comments section, posted as recently as today. Here’s the beginning of my post:

“Assassination,” Benjamin Disraeli once said, “has never changed the history of the world.” Whether or not it alters the history of the world – and I think a case can be made that it does – its occurrence and the decisions surrounding it have a tendency to consume our politics. In the past few days, the New York Times and Reuters have reported on, respectively, the existence of a secret memo justifying the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki (an American citizen) and the ‘kill panel’ that designated him a target. The exposure of the logic and process behind the assassination of al-Awlaki in such proximity to the actual event suggests a renewed debate is possible. I see two fundamental questions, not easily answered, arising out of such a conversation. One question, which is general (a hat-tip to Professor Crowley here): what is the government obliged to explain to the public after taking such actions? One question, more specific to the context of this moment: how do such events explain the Obama foreign policy, especially in relation to the rule of law?

The rest is here. Let me know what you think here, at CPF, or on Twitter.