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Obamas words will leave a legacy

by: Contributed photo, Ed Smith

Barack Obama's speech on Tuesday in Philadelphia will not be fully understood in its importance until long after this presidential race has ended. His words will not truly resonate with our national soul until we have the advantage of hindsight and clear heads that distance us from our current trivialization of our national debate on leadership. But there will come a time when we will have the opportunity to recall this thoughtful and perceptive commentary on the truth of our national condition and be inspired to remember the one great speech that has come out of this presidential contest or any campaign in recent history.

I am a 65-year-old white man who grew up in deep southeast Texas in segregated schools. I learned early to refer to blacks with derogatory terms, and I was steeped in the mythology of racism that explained the relationship of people in terms of 'God's plan' for mankind - a dominant white race and a subservient underclass of less deserving. The concept was reinforced in schools, churches and local governments. For the white population, our comfort level with racism was remarkable. Our confidence in our superiority was sure and certain. We were blind to the truth and resistant to any change.

Fortunately, history is never stagnant but perpetually dynamic. We did not change ourselves so much as we were overcome with an inexorable evolution of civilization that compelled the acceptance of a humane and logical reevaluation of our souls.

During this time there were 'touchstones' and reference points that became opportunities for a dramatic shift in thought and attitude that gradually eroded resistance to a new order. Elderly racists died off, and others began to assert a different attitude, at least publicly if not behind closed doors. What had been proper dogma became the content of a history that we pretended we had not been a part of, and what defined our culture was suddenly a part of someone else's past but not ours.

After nearly a half-century in Texas, I moved to Oregon in 1992 and found that racism, bigotry and prejudice were not peculiar to the Deep South but an ingrained feature of our national identity. We all struggle collectively with the ghosts from our past that haunt us and often reveal themselves in our weakest moments. Obama's words have offered us an opportunity to confront these personal demons and, although we will never exorcise them, a prospect of a national self-examination that will revive our evolution to a better society.

To fully appreciate what Obama has done with this one dramatic moment in history, we only have to lay these words up against the mindless and mean-spirited comments of the likes of Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Rich Lowry and Sean Hannity, who look for a way to diminish the conversation that we must have and to replace it with a 'gotcha' commentary that serves no purpose but to divide the people and evade the reality of a difficult truth that needs confronting.

To fully understand the value of Obama's entreaties to find a better way forward, one only has to compare his elegant and graceful response to this controversy with Hillary Clinton's disappointing and childish insistence that 'reject' and 'renounce' are somehow different responses to Obama's denial that his pastor speaks for him. To fully recognize the value of what Obama has offered to us as a society, one only has to compare the richness of his ideas with the bumbling and incompetent behavior and words of Bush, Cheney, McCain and politicians who don't seem to have a clue about where we are and have no plan for what we can become.

Obama may not be elected president, but in this campaign he has left a legacy that will distinguish him for future generations as the voice of our national conscience as opposed to the platitudinous babble that emanates from other politicians. The corporate news media will fail to seize this moment as a momentous benchmark among empty descriptions of non-events that pass for news, but history will recognize this speech as a point of reference in our ever-evolving American story.

I have three children - a 21-year-old daughter and 18-year-old boy-girl twins. All will vote in this election along with my wife and myself. I am proud of the compassionate, loving and concerned citizens they have become. They will watch and listen to this speech by Obama and each will make an individual decision to vote for and support him in this election. They will be excited and hopeful that they can be part of a generation that will learn from the mistakes of its elders and create a more open and compassionate society.

How do I know they will make this decision? Because I understand and have learned from them what it means to hold a belief that what we can become has no constraints beyond our own choices of limitations and that what we decide to value can be greater than ourselves if we choose to listen.

Ed Smith is a Gresham resident.