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How Will Obama Race Speech Affect Campaign?

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How Will Obama Race Speech Affect Campaign?

Election 2008

How Will Obama Race Speech Affect Campaign?

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We're joined now by Eugene Robinson, columnist for The Washington Post, and Joe Klein, columnist for Time magazine.

Welcome to both of you.

Mr. JOE KLEIN (Columnist, Time Magazine): Good to be here, Michele.

Mr. EUGENE ROBINSON (Columnist, The Washington Post): Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, first a question I'd like to post to both of you. What did Barack Obama need to accomplish with the speech today and did he actually accomplish them?

I'm going to begin with you, Eugene.

Mr. ROBINSON: The first thing he needed to accomplish with the speech was to address the issue of Reverend Wright head-on. This is an issue that threaten to kind of hijack his campaign taken into the direction that he didn't particularly want to go, and keep him on the defensive. You know, in my estimation, but you know, I think he did that - what surprised me was he seemed to do a lot more. He seemed to turn it into more of an opportunity to start a larger discussion about race. That, you know - who knows exactly where that leads, but I thought that was a really interesting thing for him to do, and the kind of bold thing for him to do.

NORRIS: Joe, did he meet his objective today?

Mr. KLEIN: It's hard to tell, I think the determinant of that is going to be us - could have been the media and how it's covered. I mean, this was a speech that was delivered at 11 o'clock in the morning, not many people were watching. And it'll be interesting to see what the sound bites are the night on television. To my mind, the crucial sound bite may not be one that makes it to air. He said that he refused to disown Reverend Wright which may make it to air.

But the next thing he said was the most important thing. He talked about his white grandmother who he loved and who loved him more than anything else in the world and how she would often say things - ethnic things, slurs that were incredible embarrassing to him. And, I think that, that speaks to almost all of us in white America because all of us had grandmothers like that. I had two of them.

NORRIS: In making that revelation did he explain his long-standing relationship to Pastor Wright…

Mr. KLEIN: I…

NORRIS: …in a way that might quiet the storm?

Mr. KLEIN: I think he did.

NORRIS: Gene?

Mr. ROBINSON: I think he did too, although, I'm a little unsure about that. I did a - in an intervening time I've done in Internet chat. And - well, I thought his explanation about Reverend Wright and the relationship was fairly straightforward and fairly complete. I was surprised to have a number of people who posted to the discussion, self-identified as white, saying, it wasn't enough for them and they wanted to - they wonder why he didn't, just go ahead and disown the guy. If - but, you know, it's interesting that it was the grandmother part of the speech that really jumped out at Joe. What jumped out at me was him later when he was talking about the racial chasm.

NORRIS: Gene, I'm not sure this is the exact portion of the speech that we were thinking of. But we do have a clip that we should listen to right now.

(Soundbite of political speech)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): Finding our particular grievances for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs to the larger aspirations of all Americans, the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who's been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.

NORRIS: Now, when you talk to the Barack Obama campaign, they were quite clear that they were speaking to various audiences and part black Americans who may have wondered or even worried whether he would throw Jeremiah Wright overboard, to white voters who question why he might turn to such a firebrand for spiritual guidance.

Those voters, that second group, white voters - particularly white, working-class voters. Gene, do you think that message of unity got through?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, it seemed to me he was speaking directly to them. He - there is a part of the speech of which he referred to some really hot-button issues. When, you know, essentially, when you see a minority who gets an advantage in getting a job or getting into college, when your child is bust across town to a different school, I mean, these are the issues that we fought so bitterly about for so long. And, you know, to try to kind of, get at those resentments I thought was a kind of audacious thing to attempt.

NORRIS: Joe, beyond the question of race, there's also a question of how his political views might have been shaped during the 20 years of attending Trinity and listening to Jeremiah Wright at the pulpit, for instance, were his views on the Middle East influenced by a pastor who suggested that the problems in the region are rooted in America's blind support for Israel? Did Barack Obama deal with that today?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, he certainly mentioned it and he certainly said unequivocally that he disagreed with Wright about that. I think that in Obama's case, the deal to indulge in a little dime store psychology here, his dad left when he was 2-years old. I imagine that he has spent much of his life trying to find a substitute and in many ways, Jeremiah Wright was that substitute, that there's a strong emotional bond there.

NORRIS: Now, if we were to accept your dime store psychology that this - that Jeremiah Wright was somewhat of a father figure for him, that suggests that this has been a very difficult week and this would've been a very difficult speech to get up there and have to explain that relationship.

Mr. KLEIN: I would imagine that this was the toughest moment in this campaign for him. And given that, I think he brought it off very well.

There was one other thing that he did that neither Gene nor I have mentioned, and that is, he really laid out the stakes in this election. The big question this year is, is this going to be a big election or a small election? Is it going to be about big ideas and the big problems that the country faces? Or is it going to be a lot - about a lot of these kind of hot-button and, you know, carnival issues that often, you know, muck up our presidential campaigns.

But there are a lot of other more basic things happening in this country right now - big, big problems that we haven't faced before.

NORRIS: Is the setting of note here that he delivered the speech in front of two American flags an attempt to look somewhat presidential as he had this discussion about race?

Mr. KLEIN: It was eight American flags…

NORRIS: Oh, I'm sorry. It's in the television screen; you only see two of those.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: Right, and across from Independence Hall, too, Philadelphia, so yeah, that was important.

NORRIS: So substance and symbolism there.

Mr. KLEIN: Well, it's the closest that he could come to making a presidential address.

NORRIS: Joe Klein, Eugene Robinson, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. ROBINSON: Happy to do it, Michele.

Mr. KLEIN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Joe Klein is a columnist for Time magazine. Eugene Robinson is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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