When President Barack Obama gave a speech at the memorial service for the 14 people murdered by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood, it was one of those moments Presidents don’t relish but that can linger beyond the moment. Was this one of them?
The context was a thorny one. Controversies still swirl over which intelligence agency seemingly dropped the ball on the warning signs that Hasan was a potential security threat. Some are now fanning the flames of resentment and against all Muslims (personal note: with a name like G-a-n-d-e-l-m-a-n spare me the silly emails suggesting that I am a Muslim, OK?). One conservative Christian group is now reportedly calling for all Muslims to be banned from the Army.
But The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, a reporter/blogger/writer/editor who is often criticized by both the right and left and who can usually be counted on to step back, take a deep breath and coolly analyze a situation when much of the old media and the always excited and often indignant new media are a frenzy, thinks he saw something special in Obama’s remarks: Obama’s best speech ever:
Today, at Ft. Hood. I guarantee: they’ll be teaching this one in rhetoric classes. It was that good. My gloss won’t do it justice. Yes, I’m having a Chris Matthews-chill-running-up-my-leg moment, but sometimes, the man, the moment and the words come together and meet the challenge. Obama had to lead a nation’s grieving; he had to try and address the thorny issues of Islam and terrorism; to be firm; to express the spirit of America, using familiar, comforting tropes in a way that didn’t sound trite.
Meanwhile, Time Magazine noted that the times have changed for these speeches due to the 24/7 industry of news analysis (increasingly coming from specific ideological points of view so you know what each talking head or website is going to say before you read, listen or watch):
Lincoln was lucky. His speech at Gettysburg wasn’t televised, and so he wasn’t subjected to hours of commentary in advance of his address, setting expectations, or hours after his speech, analyzing his every word.
No one tried to tease out the difference between his “Commander in Chief moment” and his “pastor-in-chief role,” as various TV pundits undertook to do while waiting for President Barack Obama to speak at a memorial service Tuesday for the men and women killed last week in the massacre at Fort Hood. Televised speeches now come larded in so much analysis, before and after, that it becomes almost impossible to connect with them in a genuine, visceral way.
(See pictures from Fort Hood.)
Today, everything is a set piece of some kind, framed as a recapitulation of a familiar form. Former Bush speechwriter and now columnist Michael Gerson was just one of many voices filling the empty air with comparisons of Obama’s yet-to-be speech with the words of George W. Bush after 9/11, of Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing, of Ronald Reagan after the Challenger explosion. And every set piece is political, whether it should be or not, as we learned from the repeated observation that Obama’s speech would be a sort of prelude to his awaited decision on strategy and troop levels in the Afghanistan war.
Time is correct: most analysis now centers on “what does this really mean…forget about what is being said right now” with speculation as solid as the old psychic predictions that used to scream from supermarket tabloids until they discovered there was a bigger circulation bonanza in covering celebrity scandals and the latest sleazy real or speculative news about John Edwards. Time adds:
Simple truths are often the best. But even these, on television, come swimming now against a current of expectations: Is this line a signal about future troop levels? Is that paragraph a veiled play for bipartisan support on health care? Is the tone appropriately pastoral in this section and sufficiently martial in the next? TV’s original power was its immediacy, its you-are-there quality. More and more, it seeks instead to mediate. A nation of citizens is invited to become a culture of critics.
But these critics have something to say politically one way or another in the way they frame the questions and speculations (Fox versus MSNBC and the diverse lively blog commentary that is always fun reading but predictable if you know each blog).
Check out some of the reaction from Twitter (from some bigwig names) HERE.
President Obama’s speech at Fort Hood, Texas, was a small masterpiece—less than 15 minutes—in part because it was so modest. The president had great material and he knew not to get in its way.
Go to the link to read his full analysis.
Here’s the speech so you can watch it yourself and draw your own conclusions, positive or negative:
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.