I watched President Obama speaking live on television this morning from the Mandela tribute in the Soweto, South African rain, and I felt for him as he struggled against the weather, a bad public address system, and what seemed like a restless audience hoping for him to move faster through his 30-minute monologue so they could get on with their day:
“To the people of South Africa — people of every race and every walk of life — the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us,” the president said. “His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.”
“It is hard to eulogize any man — to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person — their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul,” Mr. Obama said. “How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.”
I could tell Obama was cold and frustrated. He knew this was his moment to shine in the storm and technology and the terms of the massive stadium were failing him. He stayed on message. He delivered the lines as best he could, but there was no magic and no spark. He appeared defeated and hopeless.
In reading some of the online reports of his speech, one would think he was masterful and in charge and electrifying — and that makes one wonder what speech those reporters were actually watching.
The eyes do not lie and the ears divine the truth and what I saw and heard this morning does not match the on-the-record reports from the mainstream media. Perhaps I was wrong to sit and listen to the whole speech. Perhaps, in dribs and drabs, the speech doesn’t seem as timid and untimely in a more limited context.
If there were ever a time for Barack Obama to claim his spot in history next to Mandela — without President Mandela there could never be a President Obama — it was today, and today, the case was not made. That’s a massive opportunity lost in the ether of time, but I’m not sure if we can blame the weather and the microphone for failing of the measure of the man.
The speech itself was ordinary and unrevealing. Abraham Lincoln and JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have been able to deliver the necessary emotional punch the moment demanded — the writing failed the messenger — and that’s the most inexcusable felling of any presidency because the word is devotion and the work is embedded in prose throughout antiquity.