President Obama gives a farewell speech as only he can: filled with hope and the pledge to fight
I swear to god, I will never understand, as long as I live, how we can go from a man so intelligent, so thoughtful, so graceful and decent, so human and kind, so genuine and rational and fiery and true, a man of virtue, to what comes next: a true bottom-of-the-barrel sleaze, a brainless pervert who is only an inheritance away from spending every weekend bragging about his used car lot to the girls at Hooters. It’s a sick joke, and I think we have yet to begin to register the psychic shock this will inflict upon the country.
Watching the farewell speech tonight, as Allison and I teared up again and again, watching the faces in the crowd who knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime politician, reminded me of that. There will be regrets and recriminations, things I wish he had done and hadn’t done. That’ll be part of his legacy. But it is worth remembering that never before, and never again, will we have someone who can speak to America the way he can.
He can talk to us from a place that sees the best in us, while knowing that we have to fight the worst, without ever labeling it that way. That was the heart of tonight’s speech, and indeed, his entire Presidency. He truly believed in the decency we have in us, and in the good that can happen if we come together, and seek the best in each other, and work in good faith.
Obviously, that hasn’t always worked out. It is absolute that he gave too much credit to the nihilist annihilationists of the modern GOP. And that failed, and of course, the biggest failure was the election of Trump. He didn’t believe it could happen (neither did I). And so it did. And at times, the speech even bordered on the naive. It seemed out of tune with the apocalyptic future we see. But it wasn’t.
It was a call to action. It was a fierce call to arms. What was often missed about Obama’s optimistic rhetoric was that while it wasn’t partisan, it was certainly ideological. He placed liberalism not as a set of policies, but square in the heart of the American idea. He made the values liberals stand for–equal rights, protection of the environment, empathy and acceptance–the fabric of our twisted and tortured history. He always told us that our values were right. His whole goal, and you could even say his meaning, was to make others see the same thing.
Because he spoke to the mythical factory workers (who in common telling are somehow all white Grabowksis). He spoke to the farmer. He spoke to the people who are so angry now at giving money to the poor (blacks and Hispanics) and reminded them that they were once in Walker Evans photos. That the country once united around the poor and the dispossessed, and that we could do so again, but with a broader and more inclusive circle. And that wasn’t asking for special rights or special treatment: it was asking for equal treatment.
You could see tonight, through the smiles, that he was dropping the gloves and planning for the post-presidency. He talked about how the working class is pitted racially against itself to help the rich: that’s true, real radicalism (and happens to be 100% correct). He told whites who blamed the powerless for their situation that their guns were facing the wrong way. He gave a class-based speech about race, and a race-infused speech about class, and tied it all in to our striving for equal rights.
That was powerful. I wish he would have been more forceful about voting rights or about the disaster about to be inflicted upon us, but in a way he was. He was recruiting troops for the next battle while not talking about the terror of the enemy, but the strength of his allies. In every sentence there was a raised fist toward Donald Trump and what the Republicans represent. But he presented it in a way that could appeal to everyone.
Will it work? Who knows. I’m sure he’s already being torn apart for his narcissism in giving a big speech, as if the GOP hasn’t abrogated any right to talk about love-starved politicians. But so what? Honestly, and pardon me, but fuck them. I would almost feel bad for them, in that they have missed the most remarkable politician and man that any of us will ever see, were they not inflicting their poison on the rest of us. But there will be time for them.
So what are we left with tonight? We’re left with his love for his wife, and the example they set in being a loving, genuine, couple. The country couldn’t have asked for a better pairing. We’re left with him tearing up as he paid her tribute, and as he praised his remarkable daughters. We’re left with his and Joe Biden’s fierce respect for each other. We’re left with a rumbling crowd that is so proud of what was accomplished, and so stricken that it is going away. We’re left knowing that he’s leaving the stage.
And we’re watching a great President depart. A truly great President, who were it not for the depth of hatred and cynicism levied against him, would be being fitted for Mt. Rushmore.
And we’re watching a black man, with a black family, walk away from being a two-term President.
And we’re watching the farewell hugs of a President who treated us like adults. Who talked to us like we could understand difficult truths. Whose optimism wasn’t cliched sugar-coating, but exhortations to understand the arc of this country.
I cried that night in Grant Park. I wept and I danced and I shouted “Yes we can!” I believed it. And the last eight years, with their frustrations, their compromises, their truths left uncovered and their lies still told, the hatreds that boiled up and the half-steps and the triumphs and the laughter and their tears, and finally their fin du monde, this boiling agony of a dying sun, haven’t proven that belief to be a lie. Because it wasn’t, and that’s the heart of Obama.
It’s not the “yes”. It’s not because we say it, not because it is inevitable, not because something good has to come true. It’s the “can”. In these coming dark years, put your faith on that. Put your emphasis on the verb. We can beat this darkness. We can keep the gains of these years and not backslide into illiberal gilded madness: but victory isn’t inevitable. It doesn’t have to happen. It might not. But it can. We can, and we must. I think Obama will lead that. I think he’ll be around. I hope he will. He reminds me hope isn’t passive: it’s a spur to action.
Yes, we can.