Thank You, Mr. Obama

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(Host) The Democratic National Convention ended Thursday in Boston and one person in particular caught the attention of commentar Jay Parini.

(Parini) I’ve been mulling over this week’s Democratic convention in Boston, thinking about the speeches made by party luminaries. The ancient Romans defined rhetoric as the art of persuasion, so a good political speech should do more than merely whip up the passions of like-minded voters. It should speak to those who, in some way, remain un-persuaded.

While John Kerry and John Edwards, among others, made well-honed, effective speeches, the finest rhetorical performance, in my view, was that by Barack Obama, a candidate for the senate from Illinois. What struck me most was Obama’s persuasive idea that America is not as divided as it seems. This is, he said, the United States of America, with a stress on the first word: united. But united by what?

There are, Obama suggested, core American values that cut across the so-called red and blue states. In recent years, American politics have become increasingly divisive, and passions have flared on both sides of the aisles. One could easily be convinced that there are two Americas, and never the twain shall meet.

Mr. Obama’s speech persuaded me otherwise, forcing me to reflect on my own core values, to think hard about values that Americans by and large – share.

Like most Americans, I’m proud to belong to a nation of immigrants, one that has managed to create an economic and political system that rewards hard work over heredity. I believe in family values, too: even if my definition of family may be more flexible than some.

Like most Americans, I suspect, I believe in tolerance as an ideal, realizing that it’s important to listen to those on the other side of any fence.

On the major issue of war and peace like most Americans, red or blue-stated I agree that America must defend itself when attacked. Where we may disagree is over what is meant by attacked. If, indeed, Saddam Hussein sent planes into our buildings, and if he had stood willing and able to nuke us with long-range missiles, even I a committed dove would at least have understood the reasoning behind this war with Iraq. Unfortunately, many of those promoting the war were not straight with us, and this has led to confusion, anger, intolerance, and of course diviseness.

Yet Barack Obama has got me thinking. Perhaps we all have more in common than only last week I thought was possible.

Most of the people I know, whether conservative or liberal, share the wish to preserve our environment for our children and grandchildren. Few of us can really imagine that a world without allies is a safe world, or that religious intolerance is an American ideal. When suffering occurs, anywhere in the world, most of will feel the urge to help in whatever ways we can.

Thank you, Mr. Obama. Like you, I’m hoping that somehow we will figure out how to pull together again. It may well be that our lives depend on it.

This is Jay Parini, in Weybridge.

Jay Parini, a poet, novelist and biographer, teaches at Middlebury. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.

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