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. 

Romney’s [Possibly] Bad Political Decision

Earlier today, I posted that Governor Romney’s decision to withhold additional tax returns (and make a huge spectacle about it) was a bad political decision. There’s a burgeoning debate about whether my assertions are correct – always valid – and I thought I’d expand on my thinking a bit here.

The most powerful evidence that Romney’s resistance will come back to haunt him might lie in President Obama’s experience with the ‘birther’ movement. You can’t draw many connections between the idiotic, nonsensical debate over Obama’s long-form birth certificate and the current issues with Governor Romney’s tax returns, but I see one: stubbornness. Both Obama and Romney seem to share a certain principled obstinacy; I think Obama’s was more justified, but I also think it blinded him to political reality in the same way it has Romney. As Obama eventually learned, good things don’t always come to politicians who wait. Romney will almost certainly release more tax returns (see here for the most compelling evidence), and when he does, the time he spent standing his ground will make the contents of those returns a much bigger story.

Oddly enough, James Bond might offer the best political advice on this (all imagery aside).

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

Through Obama, the Reagan Un-Revolution?

Last night, I had the privilege of dining with one of the country’s foremost political commentators. As the author of numerous articles and several books on President Obama, his knowledge of the man and the politician was illuminating in more ways than one. Not to mention the halibut, which was excellent.

More than anything else though – even the halibut – one point made last night has kept me thinking.

Over the course of the past few months, hundreds of news articles have been written about President Obama’s increasing interest in Ronald Reagan. Though he has not – to my knowledge – commented on this peculiar political bedfellowship since the early 2008 primaries, much time, print, and pixel has been dedicated to speculation on the nature of it.

Unsurprisingly, the topic came up in conversation last night. The guest of honor was nice enough to quell my own confusion over the connection; perhaps not so nicely, he replaced confusion with sheer depression.

I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist was: Reagan shifted the political paradigm. Even as a Democrat, you couldn’t make a political argument without coming – to a certain extent – from the free-market perspective. Obama finds this notion attractive; in other words, he would like to be the “Reagan of the left,” and shift the paradigm to the left once more.

A compelling analysis, smartly put. The sad part is, where Reagan was successful, Obama has failed. Sadder still, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of room for improvement, because Obama no longer seems to be trying. What we all saw [read: me, my parents, and anyone willing to respond to my texts and emails] as a campaign designed to redefine our politics has quickly devolved into an administration of capitulation and compromise. Moreover, starting just days after his election, President Obama has consistently chosen appointees and staff who seem more comfortable arguing on Reagan’s terms than creating new terms altogether. The sum total: two years of governing that has largely reinforced the public’s sense of skepticism towards government and those working in it.

It’s not that I’m a purist or an absolutist; I recognize that in a democracy, especially one with over 300 million members, compromises must be made. For instance: though they didn’t contain every provision for which I might have advocated, I felt and still feel that the health insurance and financial regulatory reform laws created in 2010 will serve our country well. Rather, it’s the smaller stuff – the misguided initiative-taking or lack thereof – that really bothers me. It is on this level that, for two years, President Obama has shown he simply isn’t capable of redefining the style or substance of our politics the way Reagan was.

Gun ownership comes to mind as I write this. Since Reagan, Republican talking points on both have largely been the same. In 1975, then-Governor Reagan said:

Our nation was built and civilized by men and women who used guns in self-defense and in pursuit of peace. One wonders indeed, if the rising crime rate, isn’t due as much as anything to the criminal’s instinctive knowledge that the average victim no longer has means of self-protection.

Meanwhile, more than 30 years later, potential 2012 GOP Presidential nominee Sen. John Thune articulated the same logic:

I say to my colleague from New York that if someone who has a concealed carry permit … in the state of South Dakota goes to New York and is in Central Park — Central Park is a much safer place.

This has been their mantra for decades, but rather than finally sweep it away – with the ample evidence contradicting the argument that gun ownership somehow prevents crime – President Obama has remained curiously silent on gun control in its entirety. No speeches, proposals, meetings, or even “unconfirmed reports.” So much for shifting the political playing field to the left.

Gun ownership is far from the only political issue on which President Obama has conceded the liberal argument, but at 637 words, to expound on a few more would likely be overkill. Federal worker pay, judicial appointments, and economic policy all come to mind almost immediately, though.

In summary, my commentator-cum-dining companion seems right about the intentions of President Obama in aspiring to be a kind of liberal Ronald Reagan. Where said commentator stopped, and where I start off, is whether one might ever realistically hope that Obama can achieve the same kind of transformative presidency Reaganites can – for better or worse – claim. It is with sadness that I thought it last night and sadness that I write it now: if Democrats are seeking the mantle of “transformative politics,” as Roosevelt did in 1932 and as Kennedy did in 1960, I think they should look past Barack Obama.

Flashback: Sarah Palin, just Swim back to Russia

As Sarah Palin’s handlers – she needs them – try to defend her indefensible behavior, I thought I’d repost an old article I wrote for Huffington Post. The original can be found here. Enjoy!

It has now been a little over a week since your resignation as governor of Alaska, and thankfully you haven’t made many recent headlines. It seems America has been too busy discussing race relations, health care, and the economy to notice you. How refreshing!

As a 17-year-old American who has to live in this country for probably the next 80-90 years, I formally request that you pack your bags and swim across to Russia. After all, it must be close enough if you can see it from your house. I have never seen, nor have I ever heard of, a politician less qualified and less engaged than you are, and I want you to leave politics for good before you start giving the impression to other politicians that somehow these deficiencies are acceptable.

It’s not so much that you and I see two different Americas, or that we just have different perceptions of the same core American ideals. It’s that you fundamentally misunderstand America’s ideals. Every time you talk about freedom, or the future, or “the wisdom of the people,” I only have one question: what the hell are you trying to say?

One of the most absurd “arguments” you made in your farewell address was that the “wisdom of the people” can solve our most complex problems. The day that the “wisdom of the people,” and I assume you are referring to white, Anglo-Saxon, gun-owning Republican people, solves health care, education, or really any part of domestic or foreign policy is the day I move to your state, start a gun shop, hunt caribou, and build homemade artillery shells to send to the minutemen on the US-Mexico border. You’re right in asserting that government can’t make us happy, just like it can’t tell women what they can and can’t talk to their doctors about, and can’t tell gays and lesbians what kind of love is moral. However, you are wrong in saying that government can’t cure the sick and insure their families; that it can’t educate our children and reform our adults; or that it can’t generate employment for those who need it and lift those who don’t have it out of poverty. Government has done all of those things for a very long time, and will continue to do them for even longer.

We have very complex problems in America, problems that require complex solutions and intelligent leaders. I don’t want to grow up in this nation knowing that my destiny – and my country’s future – has been determined by a woman more concerned with maxing out the Republic National Committee’s wardrobe budget than tackling the tough issues.

It gives me some hope that you’ve all but disappeared from even the cable news networks this past week, but I am still wary. I’m wary that when the “birthers” that replaced your news cycle finally implode into a racist, xenophobic spitball of self-righteousness, you might feel it appropriate to make more of a fool out of your party and your country by re-entering the national spotlight.

I have had to grow up in this country, the land Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy, under George W. Bush. A man who demonizes being smart and educated as “elitist,” and who somehow manages to make being uninformed and unengaged into something honorable. I’m lucky enough now to have a President who does none of those things, and quite frankly I don’t want to turn back the clock.

Thoughts on the Events in Arizona

I’ve been “interested” in politics for as long as I can remember. Then again, a lot of people are “interested” in politics. I can pinpoint the moment when “interest” turned into “love;” when my casual observation of our democratic institutions turned into the kind of deep fascination and appreciation that sustains political junkies inside and out of the system, from Robert Byrd to Bob Woodward.

It was July 26, 2004, the night of President Bill Clinton’s speech in support of Senator John Kerry as our nominee for President at the Democratic National Convention.  I was 12 years old at the time, and idolized President Clinton, at that point the only Democratic President that served during my lifetime. It had been public knowledge among Bostonians and convention-goers that Clinton was staying at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, so I, mother in tow, decided to attempt a glimpse at him.

Seeing throngs of supporters outside, I walked with gusto into the front lobby of the hotel, into an elevator, out onto the ninth floor, and right up to a Secret Service Agent. “I’d like to meet the President,” I said. With bemusement in his voice but not a trace of harshness, the agent said “O.K.” Three hours passed, with me on the floor of the hallway, surrounded by armed guards. I met Chelsea briefly; then Hillary; then James Carville; and finally, Bill.

I’d dare to say he seemed impressed with my constitution. He spent about ten minutes with me, as I recall it, talking about politics and my interest in it, and the tough election ahead. They were ten of the greatest minutes of my young life. He and his detail left me with a personalized autograph and a pin I take with me everywhere I go. On it is a picture of a saxophone over the image of our Capitol, with the words “Clinton Protective Division” on the outer ring.

That a Former President would spend that time and pay that attention to me is inspiring, and many have similar stories to share. It is that kind of attention to people and their lives that I’ve since wanted to replicate, I see public service as the way to replicate it. Sans meeting with Clinton, my love of politics and policy might have taken longer to develop, and I would have not had such an early start pursuing opportunities to get involved.

I think about that moment of personal conversation with a political leader, as I think of what transpired in Arizona today. I think about how valuable that moment was and is to me, and I worry about whether violence like this – and the fear of an increase in it – may all but spell an end to that quality of contact with our politicians. I hope for the full recovery of Congresswoman Giffords and the others involved, and I also hope for the continued health of the uniquely-American accessibility to our leaders we so often take for granted.

I can think of many similar moments that have sustained my love of politics, from the big (meeting and talking with the late Senator Ted Kennedy in the hallway of the Longworth House Office Building just weeks before his diagnosis of brain cancer) to the small (walking up the steps of the Supreme Court on an early Monday morning in the District). Fear of violent attack has already made it impossible for others to replicate many of my experiences, like that stroll up the steps of the Supreme Court or that walk into the Senate gallery through the old side entrance overlooking the National Mall. Many of these moments, one might argue, have value that lies in the eye of the beholder. I can’t dispute that. However, what I also think most would say is indisputable is that the most inspiring way to witness the majesty of our government, and those working in it, is up close and personal. We must preserve that part of our system, the close encounters with the both the people and the trappings of our most valuable national institutions, for our children and grandchildren. We must do what many past generations have done with such dignity and resolve: stand up to fear.

When President Abraham Lincoln faced a divided nation, marred by violence on and off of the Civil War battlefield, some in Washington, D.C. suggested it might be best to postpone the holy grail of American democracy: the election. In a fierce rebuke that echoes poignantly to his day, Lincoln said:

We cannot have free government without free elections. If the rebellion could force us to forgo or postpone a national election, it might fairly be claimed to have already conquered and ruined us.

Today, if fanatics like Jared Loughner, fanatics who seek to undermine our political system, succeed in forcing political leaders out of neighborhoods and schools and into armored cars and controlled private events, they have already won.  We must continue the same work Congresswoman Giffords was doing Saturday morning in Tuscon: striving to make politics accessible and engaging for an ever-increasing number of Americans. It is in her honor and in honor of the many public servants who came before and the many who will come after, that we must resist the urge to give in to fear.

In three days, I’ll be 19 years old. In just two weeks, I’ll start the second semester of my freshman year in college. Twenty years from now, as I walk the National Mall with my own children, I want them to be able to take the same path I did; see the same places, and meet the same people. In short, I want them to have the same opportunity to be inspired, the same opportunity to feel within them “a spark of hope amidst the fierce urgency of now,” that witnessing the machinations of the world’s longest living democracy so often provides. In an era of decreasing participation and increasing disenfranchisement, we simply cannot afford it any other way.