I've been blessed to hear many great orations. I was in the audience when Howard Dean gave his famous address challenging the Democratic Party to rediscover courage and return to principle. I have heard Bill Clinton speak of a place called Hope, and listened to John Edwards bravely channel the populism that American politics so often suppresses. Some of those politicians mirrored my beliefs better than Obama does. Some of their speeches were more declarative and immediate in their passion. But none achieve quite what Obama, at his best, creates.
Obama's finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don't even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. The other great leaders I've heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.
In the days to come, just as in the days that have passed, I'll talk much more about Obama's policies. About his health care policy, and his foreign policy, and his social policy, and his economic policy. But so much as I like to speak of white papers and scored proposals, politics is not generally experienced in terms of policies. It's more often experienced in terms of self-interest, and broken promises, and base fears, and half-truths. But, very rarely, it's experienced as a call to create something better, bigger, grander, and more just than the world we have. When that happens, as it did with Robert F. Kennedy, the inspired remember those moments for the rest of their lives.
The tens of thousands of new voters Obama brought to the polls tonight came because he wrapped them in that experience, because he let them touch politics as it could be, rather than merely as it is. And for that, he deserved to win. And he deserves our thanks. The politician who gets the most votes merits our congratulations. But the politician who enlarges our politics and empowers more Americans to step forward into the public square deserves our gratitude. And we, in turn, deserve to permit ourselves to feel inspired, if only for a night.
Photo used under Creative Commons license from Joe Crimmings.