I made my nine-year-old son sit down and watch Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. I told him this was history happening, that he would never forget this moment, that when I was his age the idea of a black man standing up and accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party to be president of the United States was even beyond the stuff of dreams.
His response: "Why was that?"
Yes, we are making progress. Michael’s public school class learns about Martin Luther King Jr., but the kids are struggling to comprehend how this country could once have forced black and white people to drink out of different water fountains. We are not a post-racist society by any means, but even in my most depressed and cynical moments, I know we are making progress.
And so we sat through a good speech, possibly a great speech, although I can’t go along with the bloggers and commentators who announced just a few minutes after it ended that it was the best convention speech anyone ever made. I kind of think Obama was better in 2004.
But it’s tough to do all the things his handlers said he needed to do. They think he hasn’t been aggressive enough in responding to John McCain’s attacks, so he spent far too much of his prime time talking about why the other guy is a chump. They worry about how popular McCain’s oil drilling proposal is, so he had to make a really dumb comment about safe nuclear energy, which is an oxymoron if ever there were one.
He had to lay out a specific plan so he wouldn’t sound vague.
It got better toward the end, when he started sounding like the inspirational leader he has the potential to be. And what struck me and what will be a huge part of this campaign, under the surface was this comment:
"Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us."
And this on negative campaigning:
"And you know what it’s worked before. Because it feeds into the cynicism we all have about government. When Washington doesn’t work, all its promises seem empty. If your hopes have been dashed again and again, then it’s best to stop hoping, and settle for what you already know."
I think one of the central questions of American policy today is going to be rectifying the profound difference between John F. Kennedy and the Avengers. Kennedy, of course, urged his generation to "ask not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country." The Avengers, Penelope Houston’s 1980 San Francisco punk band, put it another way: "Ask not what you do for your country / What’s your country been doin’ to you?"
I grew up with the second one. The government sent you to Vietnam and spied on you and locked you up for smoking pot, and we joked about the greatest lie in the world being, "I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you."
Denver last week was full of people too young for either slogan, and their energy is what fuels the Obama movement. Government working for us, not against us, lacks Kennedy’s rhetorical flourish, but the idea is right and if Obama can make that a theme for the next eight years, he’ll be doing something truly revolutionary.