Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

How Obama Learned His Pulpit Style

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    NEWSLETTERS

    AP
    President Barack Obama didn't always enjoy the gifts of lofty, sermon like oratory. It was a skill he had to learn.

    The conservative news site The Daily Caller posted a 2007 speech of Barack Obama speaking to a black audience about rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It’s supposed to be an October surprise, because Obama gives a shout-out to his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and criticizes the federal government for spending money on highways in the suburbs while ignoring the inner city. Racial code words, right?

    But Daily Caller editor Tucker Carlson also criticized Obama for the way he spoke, accusing the former Harvard Law Review president of putting on a fake African-American accent.

    “Let me just be totally clear for anyone who just watched it and who has seen Obama speak in public over the last ten years will note, this accent is absurd,” Carlson said on Fox News‘s Hannity program.  “This is not the way Obama talks — at least it’s not the way he’s talked in the dozens, the scores of speeches I’ve watched him give, or public appearances I’ve seen him make. This is a put-on. This is phony. That’s issue one.”
        
    Carlson has a point. That’s not Obama’s natural accent. It’s a speaking style he developed between his 2000 loss to Rep. Bobby Rush and his 2004 U.S. Senate victory. When Obama was preparing to run for the Senate, all his friends agreed that he was a terrible orator. During his campaign for the 1-st Congressional District, he talked to audiences in a stilted, professorial style that made the air in a room feel stale. His attempts to connect with black audiences fell flat. Addressing a group of black teachers at a South Side nightclub, he trotted out the phrase “keeping it real.” You could hear the air quotes.

    “You’ve got to broaden it,” Obama’s friend Martin King, the chairman of Rainbow PUSH urged him. “You’ve got to speak larger. You should go see Jesse.”

    Obama took King’s advice and began attending the Saturday morning rallies at “Jesse’s Place,” the Grecian-style Rainbow PUSH headquarters on Drexel Avenue in Kenwood. Obama’s black friends weren’t the only ones urging him to be a little more pulpit and a little less lecture hall. Abner Mikva was on his case about it, too. Preaching wasn’t Obama’s natural style, but he was going to have to learn if he wanted to light up black audiences outside Hyde Park.    

    “You’ve got to get into those black churches,” Mikva ordered Obama. “You’ve got to spend more time there. You know, Dr. King never pulled his punches, but he said it in a way black people understood.”

    Then, Mikva told a story from his own day, about something Cardinal Richard Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, said to John F. Kennedy after the 1960 West Virginia primary.

    “Jack,” Cushing said, “Jack, from now on be more Irish and less Harvard.”

    Obama, he was suggesting, needed to be more black and less U of C.

    Obama showed off his new oratorical chops, and his ability connect with a black audience, in a 2003 speech at Liberty Baptist Church, an essential Sunday-morning stop for any South Side politician.

    Obama mounted the red-carpeted steps to the pulpit with his long-legged stride, pointing, waving, and when he began talking, he didn’t use bureaucratic, academic terms like “bring together institutions from various sectors.” That was the Obama of 2000. The new Obama had studied his audience -- hardworking, churchgoing, blacks -- studied their aspirations, and the way they liked to hear those aspirations expressed, every Sunday morning. This was going to be a sermon, not a lecture. It was going to quote Jesus, not the Brookings Institution.

    “My name is Barack Obama, and everywhere I went, I would always get the same two questions. Didn’t matter where I went. First question was, ‘Where did you get this funny name, Barack Obama?’ Though people wouldn’t always say it right. They would call me Alabama. They’d call me ‘Yo Mama.’” -- here, the congregation laughed -- “And those were my supporters who called me that. I won’t even talk about the folks running against me. The second question was ‘Why would you want to get into a dirty business like politics?’ There is another tradition of politics, and that tradition says we are all connected. If there is a child on the South Side that can’t read, that makes a difference in my life, even if it’s not my child.”

    “Right, right,” came the voices from the pews.

    “If there is a senior citizen on the West Side that can’t afford their prescription medicine, having to choose between buying medicine and paying the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent.”

    They were standing and clapping now, responding to the rhythms of his oratory.

    “I believe that we can be a better nation,” Obama shouted. “I believe that we can provide homes to the homeless and food to the hungry and clothes to the naked. I believe that we can defeat George Bush.”

    There were moments when he sounded like a parody of a jackleg preacher, his voice dipping into a guttural approximation of street talk, as though he were about to add “mm-hmm!” to the end of every sentence. Obama never spoke that way in private, but as a candidate, he wanted to be black when he needed to be black, and white when he needed to be white.

    Only whites were embarrassed by Obama’s attempts to sound ghetto. “It can be painful to hear Barack Obama talk jive,” wrote Todd Spivak in the Illinois Times, ridiculing Obama for using the word “homeboy” in church. Obama responded to Spivak’s article with a wrathful phone call, suggesting that racial identity was still a touchy subject with him.

     

    This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $9.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.