lessons from America

One week on

As I stay up waiting for McCain to give his big speech, I’ve been thinking back to that wonderful evening exactly one week ago in Denver.  It was an incredible experience and am still on a high from it.  But my one disappointment had been that – due to the acoustics of the stadium and the crowd noise – I struggled to catch every word of Obama’s speech.  Sure, I got the jist and the big lines, but not the nuances of his message, the cadences of his voices and the full extent of the content. 

So earlier I went on youtube and listened to Obama’s speech again. The full transcript a also be read here. I can really appreciate now the plaudits he got for it in the media.  I would have loved it if on the night he had soared to the rhetoric heights of his New Hampshire ‘yes we can’ or breakthrough ’04 convention speeches, but that wasn’t the case and rightly so.  There were some real policy meat – mapping out the “change” that the campaign is based upon.  There were many more of the kitchen-table anecdotes of ordinary lives and hurdles that he was criticised for not including during the primaries.  There was a real focus on the financial struggles and challenges many Americans are (and feel they are) experiencing; something noticeably absent from the Republican Convention.

The night was a historic one for all the well known reasons.  And call me a softy, but when listening again tonight I was almost in tears with the emotion of the Martin Luther King reference and remembering (and seeing again) the moving reaction in the crowd to Obama’s words:

“And it is that promise that 45 years ago today, brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln’s Memorial, and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream. The men and women who gathered there could’ve heard many things. They could’ve heard words of anger and discord. They could’ve been told to succumb to the fear and frustration of so many dreams deferred. But what the people heard instead — people of every creed and color, from every walk of life — is that in America, our destiny is inextricably linked. That together, our dreams can be one. “We cannot walk alone,” the preacher cried. “And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.” “

Having been at the Emily’s List reception, it was noticeable that one of the big issues delegates (especially but not exclusively women) were fired up about was the inequalities in pay between the genders. Obama was always going to say something about it, but you get the feeling he truly believes in the cause, given the feeling he gives to the line:

“Now is the time to keep the promise of equal pay for an equal day’s work, because I want my daughters to have the exact same opportunities as your sons.”

One aspect I hadn’t fully appreciated at the time was the repeated echoing of Obama’s famous refrain from his 2004 speech “there are no red states or blue states, only the united states of America”. Here perhaps is the most obvious one:

“The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America – they have served the United States of America.”

But also this passage, where he goes beyond platitudes and takes on some of those wedge issues that have split the nation:

“We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination. You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers. But this, too, is part of America’s promise — the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.”

One of Obama’s phrases that has most captured my imagination is “the audacity of hope” – the title of his 2nd book.  I’ll go into that in more detail later, especially in terms of the resonance with my experiences in Africa.  But it was fitting that one of his closing passages – consciously I’m sure – echoed this theme:

“This country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities and our culture are the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores. Instead, it is that American spirit — that American promise — that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend. That promise is our greatest inheritance. It’s a promise I make to my daughters when I tuck them in at night, and a promise that you make to yours — a promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west; a promise that led workers to picket lines, and women to reach for the ballot.”

Words cannot really capture the atmosphere, especially the finale: the curtain calls, cheers, applause,  flagwaving, confetti and fireworks.  So instead of more words from me, here are photos from the night from Denver resident Diane Dubois:


September 5, 2008 Posted by | Denver Diary, global perspective | 1 Comment