The Power Of Obama’s Words

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - August 13, 2008

Hawaii-born Barack Obama is in town this week. He’s visiting his maternal grandmother, 85-year-old Madelyn Dunham.

I like that. There’s something nice about a young man who comes home - as Obama usually does at Christmastime - to visit his grandma.

Obama owes her, after all - just as we all owe respect and attention and love to those who’ve reared and supported and loved us. But in his case, as he’s acknowledged to audiences large and small across the nation, more so.

Madelyn Dunham and her late husband Stanley stepped in to help their daughter when her marriages failed - a role familiar to too many Hawaii grandparents.

Obama’s late this year; another woman name of Clinton was keeping him busy on the continent. Very busy indeed.

I expect Obama will play some golf while he’s home. Shoot some hoops with Punahou buddies. Spend time with his sister. Probably take wife Michelle and his lovely girls to the beach a time or two.

Those of us in Hawaii’s scribbling trade want more of him: a large public event, press conferences, photo opportunities, anything at all, really.

We’ve been told by Republican presidential candidate John McCain and the purveyors of scurrility who run his advertising campaign that it’s just our national obsession with celebrity that draws adoring crowds - and press - to Obama. You know, Obama as rock star, Obama on par with two bimbos known for having their pictures taken sans under-pants.

McCain misses a couple of things, and my guess is that he knows them but chooses to ignore what he knows.

First, McCain fails to acknowledge the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy. Obama is only the third African-American to serve in the United States Senate, and he is the first African-American to carry the presidential banner of a major American political party. That’s historic, and Obama’s adoring supporters know it.

So too do the members of the press who - after all - write history’s first draft.

Secondly, Obama is a man of the word. Before he enjoyed anything other than Chicago South Side political renown, he wrote a good, sensitive, highly readable book titled Dreams of My Father. At the 2004 Democratic Convention, Obama’s keynote address transformed him into a national political force. His second book, The Audacity of Hope, made him a rich man.

During the past year, his speeches have filled ever larger halls and public spaces across the country - and as far away as Berlin. McCain and his handlers discount Obama’s oratory. They do so at their peril. In the fall of 1859, following his unsuccessful but nonetheless impressive run for the United States Senate in Illinois a year earlier, Springfield attorney, former state legislator and one-term congressman Abraham Lincoln was invited by East Coast Republicans to give a speech at the Cooper Union Institute in New York.

On the evening of Feb. 27, 1860, few in the audience of 1,500 expected much from the tall, homely Illinois attorney. Lincoln won them, laying out the case against slavery and the necessity of North and South reclaiming the pledge of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” He received a standing ovation. Even the cynical press was disarmed, and New York Republicans knew that while they had a presidential candidate of their own that year - William Henry Seward - Illinois had a formidable one as well.

Lincoln, of course, would go on to inspire Americans to seek “a new birth of freedom.” He would appeal “to the better angels of our nature.” And he would urge his fellow countrymen to find their way in “the mystical chords of memory.” Words count, and Lincoln’s inspiring words did far more than lead a nation through a civil war; they also provided one of the basic texts of our national creed.

I’m not about to elevate Obama to Lincoln’s status yet. But the man can write and the man can speak. And his words obviously have the power to move people, a talent you can’t dismiss as mere celebrity.

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