January 12, 2011: On this day, in Tucson, Arizona, Barack Obama, the master orator who inspired so many of us on election night in Grant Park and then disappeared as he was overtaken by the hurly-burly of politics, reemerged to give what may have been his greatest speech yet. It was eloquent in language and tone, and entirely appropriate to the occasion. This, I remember thinking as I listened, is what oratory is all about.
The setting added to the drama. Arizona is hardly a blue state and certainly not in the President’s comfort zone. Boston or Chicago would have been more simpatico. Also adding to the drama was the President’s revelation that Congresswoman Giffords had opened her eyes that very day, for the first time since she was shot But a dramatic setting can take one only so far. The President could have milked the emotional points but did not. He walked the fine line between bathos and passivity with skill that cannot be rehearsed; it’s in his DNA.
Barack Obama has made some terrible blunders in policy and in politics. He has lashed out at fat-cat bankers and rallied his colleagues to "keep the drug companies honest.” He promoted his health-care program as a cost saver, admitting after passage that no one should have thought that 30 million Americans could be added to the insured rolls at no cost. So President Obama has much to answer for.
But give him his due: He is a giant among the orators of our time. This talent must not be underestimated or undervalued. The country is dangerously divided, and oratory ranks high among the leadership qualities the nation so desperately needs. On January 12 the President found his voice again, in a speech that will reverberate for a long time. One hopes that among those who take its message seriously is Barack Obama himself.