Jude Collins

Friday, 14 January 2011

Obama in Tucson: the call goes out

Yesterday I watched the entire Obama speech at the Tucson memorial service for those who died in the shooting there. He was enormously impressive. The man’s measured language, his timing, his ability to present complexity in a clear, accessible manner is unsurpassed by any politician I can remember. At a few points I felt uncomfortable. His pointing to people in the audience who had helped at the scene of the shooting and declaring them heroes, his presentation of each of the six people who were killed as the epitome of all that was good in America – that seemed marginally overdone. Yes I know, I know. This was a memorial service, of course you praise unreservedly the lives and actions of the deceased; but as an inhibited Irishman, I felt the canonization process was a little excessive.

But that’s perhaps to quibble. Overall it was a powerful, moving speech, appealing to all that is good in Americans and in the rest of us. The temptation must have been there to deliver a firm, attention-getting boot to the vulnerable parts of the American right. He didn’t. As one commentator said, he emerged as the only adult in the room. In a speech that echoed the theme of his break-through address at the Democratic Convention in 2004, he called for respect and selflessness in the American family. He reminded his audience that it’s not fame or wealth or power but love that is ‘the measure of our lives’. And he called on them to bring into reality the country that nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green believed in.

So, a wonderful speech by a man who sounded every inch a political leader and a moral leader as well.

But…will his words succeed in healing the US’s wounds? Will there be a change in the rhetoric people like Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck regularly employ - alarmist, personal, degrading of political debate? As the Tucson audience rose to give Obama yet another standing ovation, as people in the audience bit back tears, I longed to surrender, to be swept up on his wave of oratory along with the audience there. But I couldn’t. I was back in St Columb’s College, Derry in 1957, watching a school production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1. I’ve forgotten a great deal of the play but with sharp-edged clarity I remember the scene where the Welsh magician Glendower is trying to impress the English military man Hotspur. Finally, in a booming eruption, Glendower cries “I can call spirits from the vasty deep!” There’s a pause as the audience takes in this glorious outburst. Then Hotspur, a dry realist, responds: "Why so can I, or so can any man/But will they come when you do call for them?”

Obama’s call yesterday was a thrilling one, appealing for a new spirit in America, where opponents are respected and where service to others is the yardstick against which success is measured. An eloquent, magical call. But will the Becks and O’Reillys and Palins respond, do you think?

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