The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Civil Rights Book Club: Power in Words: The Stories behind Barack Obama's Speeches, from the State House to the White House

November 19, 2010 - Posted by Jeff Miller

Barack Obama was an Illinois state senator running for the U.S. Senate when he was tapped by Senator John Kerry's presidential campaign to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Although Obama had never before used a teleprompter, his 17-minute speech helped set the stage for one of the most dramatic ascents in U.S. political history. Overnight, Obama went from being an unknown state lawmaker with a funny name to a rising superstar in the Democratic Party.

That address and 17 others provide the framework for "Power in Words: The Stories behind Barack Obama's Speeches, from the State House to the White House," by Mary Frances Berry, an acclaimed historian and former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and Josh Gottheimer, a former presidential speechwriter for Bill Clinton. The 18 speeches, reproduced in full, cover a six-year period beginning with Obama's 2002 rationale for opposing the war in Iraq to his 2008 presidential victory speech in Hyde Park.

As the title suggests, Berry (a board member of The Leadership Conference Education Fund board member) and Gottheimer provide readers with a deeper understanding of how Obama used speeches to introduce his unusual biography to the public, frame a policy agenda, build political capital, and persuade a majority of voters to trust him with the most powerful elected office in the world. The book also provides a revealing look into the interplay between Obama and his advisors, particulary a talented group of wordsmiths led by Jon Favreau who helped Obama develop his ideas and express his values in a way that would resonate with a nation seeking leadership toward a brighter future.

Obama's speeches have been remarkably consistent over time. According to Berry and Gottheimer, "The themes have been: unity, responsibility, change." As a former constitutional law professor and civil rights lawyer, Obama was at his best when he spoke about how our founding ideals make it possible for people of all races, religions, and economic backgrounds to work together to solve the great challenges of the 21st century and "to form a more perfect union." In a forward to the book, Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy's speechwriter who passed away in October, writes that Obama "refused to talk down to voters, or to dodge difficult issues, or to revert to the worn slogans and cliches that often define political rhetoric."

Two years into Obama's presidency -- and following a self-described "shellacking" for his party in the 2010 congressional elections -- it's worth noting that Obama also clearly cautioned that the challenges facing the country -- and that he would inherit upon taking the oath of office -- would not be solved quickly or easily. As he said in his Hyde Park victory speech, "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America -- I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there."

"Power of Words" is a valuable addition to our understanding of Obama, his improbable rise, and the historic campaign that carried him to the Oval Office.

The Civil Rights Book Club to provide context and provoke discussion about today's top social justice concerns. Each week, we profile a book, a movie, or other media that represent the diversity of the contemporary social justice movement. You can help support The Leadership Conference by purchasing Book Club selections through the Amazon.com link on our website.

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