Another superb speech from Barack Obama yesterday, addressed to the meeting of the Abraham Lincoln Association in Springfield, Illinois, at the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. The President chose this moment to come back to his great campaign theme, the unity of this country, reminding his audience that, especially in this most difficult of times, it will take the effort of the nation as a whole, united, to prevail over the multiple problems that beset us. I have no idea how widely the speech was covered by the media, but I was happy to have found it later in the evening, amidst my recorded news shows; and I hope that it was seen by millions. It matched, in power and passion, the speech he gave in Philadelphia last year on the subject of race, and deserves at least as wide an audience.
Obama's oratorical skills were held against him during his campaign, as though his speeches were just empty flourishes, devoid of anything but rhetoric. What his critics failed--still fail--to recognize, in what I can only assume to be their envy, is that there is no great oratory without great vision. Obama's impressive strength lies not in his ability to speak fine words, but in the breadth of his historical vision and understanding, his ability to find connections and weave them into a coherent intellectual overview, his command of appropriate anecdote and metaphor, his ability to blend gravity and humor, simple truth with obdurately complex issue. All of which bespeaks not the glib skills of a salesman but the quality of a man who commands his own resources and has the special gift of being able to communicate his vision to others. Beside such a grandly unifying speech as this one, the partisan squeaks of his opponents sound pusillanimous indeed.
In her late-life interview with Gwen Ifill, re-broadcast last night, the inimitable Eartha Kitt was as elegant and eloquent in her own way as the man she did not live to see take the oath of office. Interesting that these two pioneers of mixed heritage should voice much the same ideas about race. A generation older, Eartha Kitt was herself the victim of back-of-the-bus discrimination and an active participant in the civil rights movement on 1950s and 1960s America--a movement without which, as he has frequently avowed, Obama would not be sitting where he is today. With him, however, she shared the notion that more important than being a black American or a white American was being an American. She rejected equally the burdens and entitlements of racial identity, creating her own distinctive path in life with a determination that assured her success.
And what an extraordinary woman she was. At 81, she strode onto the stage for her interview, kicking up a perfectly-toned leg through the hip-to-heel slit in her long skirt. It seemed that she had lost none of the vitality, the assertive, teasing sexuality, the purring sensuality of her youthful years. I recall listening to her songs--"Monotonous," "Santa Baby,"--back in the 1950s, a (very!) young twenty-something year old Brit, totally in awe, unimaginably seduced by the unabashed come-on in her sultry voice. I would have expected all that energy to seem slightly obscene, coming from a woman of 81, but instead I was intensely moved by her performance, and found it no less enchanting than it had been all those years ago. I watched her preen and flirt with the audience, with her interviewer, with the band... all with a kind of throw-away grace that charmed them all. She positively oozed vitality from every pore.
Incredible, really, that this still-powerful woman was to die, barely three months later, on Christmas Day, of colon cancer. I have no doubt at all but that Santa Baby had hurried down the chimney just the night before.