Even before the decision to move the speech into a Denver ballpark, the expectations for Wednesday’s historic consecration of Barack Obama as America’s first black nominee for president were a mile high - and a little breathless.
Through a fateful quirk of scheduling, Obama’s acceptance address falls on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s a reverberation so resonant that an eyewitness to King’s famous stem-winder refers to the mountain Obama must climb in Denver as “the Dream Speech II.”
Anticipation runs high for Obama's historic speech
“Barack’s candidacy would not have been conceivable 50 years ago,” said Clayborne Carson, who was 19 when he joined the throng listening to King’s speech at the March on Washington.
The world was changing fast - within three months, President Kennedy would be murdered in Dallas, and within six, the Beatles’ first appearance “Ed Sullivan” upended the culture - but change was not coming fast enough for black Americans. King’s powerful conjuring of a color-blind nation rang a mighty bell across the political landscape.
Although King gazed out that day in 1963 upon a sea of faces more often black than white, in many respects his intended audience was the same one Obama will be attempting to galvanize Wednesday: wary white Americans.
“I think there’s a real connection,” says Carson, now director of Stanford University’s King Research and Education Institute. “King’s speech brought about a significant outpouring of support among whites for the idea of civil rights reform. And even though Obama wants to run as a trans-racial candidate, his candidacy obviously has enormous symbolic significance.”
Like King, Obama faces the daunting task of laying out a vision for the country, one that offers a still fractious electorate reason to believe that America’s first biracial president - one frequently, and falsely, rumored to be a Muslim - would be one of them. While harkening back to King’s ideals of equality, Obama must deliver a speech that also quells skepticism that he’s just a hollow sweet-talker, that his vision is nothing more than the skin-deep sloganeering of “hope” and “change.”
Obama is almost obliged to invoke King’s speech in front of 75,000 people at Invesco Field - unlike King, he’ll be speaking in the shadow of a huge rearing Bronco, not the Great Emancipator - but having done so, he’s unlikely to spend much time repeating the civil rights leader’s themes.
“He has to present himself as the American candidate for president, not the African-American candidate,” says Stephen Lucas, professor of political rhetoric in public speaking at the University of Wisconsin. “You have to de-racialize the dream.”
King’s “Dream” speech remains an unconquerable rhetorical summit, voted the top political speech of the 20th century by a group of scholars from AmericanRhetoric.com.
“Anybody who gives a speech on this kind of occasion speaks in King’s shadow, and is judged in comparison with him,” says Stephen Lucas, professor of political rhetoric in public speaking at the University of Wisconsin. “That’s part of the enormous challenge Obama has created for himself. For better or worse, by happenstance or design, he has set the rhetorical bar extraordinarily high.”
King’s address to a crowd of 200,000 assembled on the Mall in Washington would have been quickly forgotten if he had stuck to his prepared text. According to King biographer Taylor Branch, he was almost finished when the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson suddenly called out from the stage, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” A week earlier in Detroit, she had heard King use some of the same phrases that he was about to turn into an indelible refrain.
“That speech was the first time many in our generation heard him speak in a coherent, consistent way, instead of the sound bites that we’d been exposed to on the news,” recalls Steven Millner, chairman of African-American studies at San Jose State University. Then 15, he watched as King spoke on live television. “We were stunned.”
“Nothing like that had ever been on television before,” says Martin Medhurst, professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor University, recalling the sight of black man offering a powerful prescriptive to the nation, “and a lot of people found it scary.”
For Obama as much as for King, the occasion could prove transformational; or, as Steven Millner, chairman of African-American studies at San Jose State University, says, considering the possibility of a speech that falls flat, “a catastrophe.” Obama’s lead over John McCain in opinion polls has dropped from double-digits to a statistical dead heat since he won the nomination. He must calm the turbid waters within his own party and convert disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters, or his campaign will be over before it begins.
Obama made his debut on the national stage with a brilliant keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, and has proven himself during key moments of the campaign to be an electrifying speaker. But despite a tendency to sound preacherly at times, he lacks the rhetorical daring that King brought with him from the pulpit.
“Obama is probably the best political speaker we’ve had since Ronald Reagan,” says Baylor’s Medhurst. “He’s a highly rational speaker, unlike King, but at the same time touches people emotionally. What gives him his emotional power is his use of the language of transformation. Obama is able to rise above the particulars of the moment and talk more in universals that can encompass people of many ideologies.”
King’s dream was for an outcome he could not realistically hope to see even if he had lived longer. As a politician, Obama confronts the fierce urgency of now or never. His need to win an election in November creates a trickier set of expectations.
“In a sense, he needs to do something similar to what King did,” says Carson, “to do what only great orators can do: offer a compelling vision of the future. That’s what great oratory is. It’s not just putting words together. It’s putting the right words to match the historical moment.”
The historical moment isn’t always obvious at the time. The newspaper accounts of King’s speech the next day took little note of anything unusual. “It was one more speech at the end of a long day full of them,” Carson recalls. “I don’t even remember hearing it at the time.”