Barack Obama came to public attention through the power of his oratory, and then won the presidency on the back of its soaring, uplifting, optimistic cadences. He called it into action again, after eight years as the nation's preacher in chief where his ability to persuade a nation and articulate its public and hidden feelings has often been stretched to the limit but rarely found wanting. His speech to the Democratic Convention wasn't just about supporting the woman he wants to be his successor, or damning, with his customary crisp, light yet lethally wielded authority, her opponent. It was also about ensuring the longevity of his own legacy. It was about whether the presidency stays in the hands of someone with intellectual rigour, passion and nuance, or whether it passes to the vulgarian instincts of a self-regarding demagogue.
It was a tremendous speech, a reminder of what it's like to be governed in poetry. And in defending the character of Hillary Clinton, a woman who has been active in front-line politics for over thirty years, he also called in support the impressive verbal artillery of one of his illustrious Republican predecessors. Teddy Roosevelt was the man who first referred to the presidency as the "bully pulpit", and he was no mean user of it. He had no time for the critics who sniped from the sidelines, preferring the endeavours of the person who clambered into the arena to do something, and while yes, this embraces both good and bad, it is nonetheless an invocation to do more than simply carp. The passage that President Obama referred to is here:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who
points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds
could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is
actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and
blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and
again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but
who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms,
the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at
the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who
at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so
that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who
neither know victory nor defeat.
Roosevelt was addressing the issue of "Citizenship in a Republic", speaking at the time to an audience at the Sorbonne in Paris. As our own democracies and republics face ever greater threats, and as our political class comes under more cynicism and pressure the time is certainly here for more people to actually get into the arena, for there they will not just act for the ideals they hold but perhaps also understand that there is no easy path to any political goal, no matter how virtuous. That compromise and shortcoming and erring is part of the process.
Obama called many ideas and people into action in his speech, including the very founding fathers who declared their independence at Philadelphia in 1776. His speech - worth watching in its entirety - was a reminder not just of how far the republic has come, but also of how easily it might fall back into the mendacious hands of an arrogant authoritarian. It was a terrific call to arms.