Impromptu History

220px-Barack_Obama_Hope_posterBy Charles Cullen

A remarkable thing happened on Friday, July 19th 2013. Our President ambled into the press room, joked with reporters and then made a statement that, sadly, rose out of the heartbreaking aftermath of the theft of a young life.

I began to write an article addressing all the political ramifications of Obama’s speech; all the ways the media was getting the story wrong, how the other side would react. But, after two sentences, I stopped. I couldn’t do it. The speech was too personal, too beautiful and raw to soil with crass politics. I can, and will, do exactly that in a companion piece. But this moment in Obama’s Presidency was so unique that one has to acknowledge its strangeness, its humanness before beginning to theorize about what it will mean for anyone. To play politics now would be like watching the Moon landing and wondering if the first person to speak would be a Republican or a Democrat.

This may seem like hero worship, but I can assure you it is not. Only twice in my life have I felt stunned in this way while listening to a politician. The first was a rebroadcast of John Kerry’s demand that the Senate answer an impossible question: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” The second was when President Obama described watching his daughters with their friends and, smiling, reminded us “They’re better than we are.”

This speech will be remembered as historic for many reasons—one being that no President has ever done anything like it—but what struck me was the President’s manner; the unflinching familiarity of the most powerful person in the world. He seemed to speak both as the President of the United States and as a dinner guest.

There were apparently no teleprompters or notes. Just the President asking us to make sure we are “wringing as much bias out” of ourselves as we can, while describing his own encounters with racial fear. The entire thing reminded me of a far less eloquent conversation with a College classmate, who in 2000 assured me that racism in the U.S. had been cured. To settle the issue we made a bet. We would ask the next 10 people who walked by (we were seated) whether racism in the United Sates was still a problem. If even one said that it wasn’t I would concede the point. Happily, I won. The victory is more impressive when you consider that I did not attend what one might call a liberal college.

The second moment of my life that springs vividly to mind as I think about the President’s words is the reaction to a question posed in 1998 by my High School history professor. “Would we see an African American President during our lifetimes?” he asked us. I remember maybe two people saying it was possible, though very unlikely. The rest, including me, said no. Perhaps our children would see it, but not us.

These answers were given by students at a high school so comically liberal that we are known worldwide (I promise this is true) as an Ultimate Frisbee powerhouse. It doesn’t change the fact that if you tried to tell me then that a man named Barack Hussein Obama would occupy the White House while I was still in my 20’s, I would have laughed in your face.

President Obama’s words remind us that there is still an unbelievable amount of work to do as we strive to achieve a “more perfect Union.” “Not a perfect Union,” he carefully put it “but a more perfect Union.”

It is my hope that Obama’s words will inspire us to do that work, to acknowledge our differences without hating them. The sentiment goes hand in hand with the hope that we will continue to push so that one day our daily lives reflect the sacred idea that “all men [and women] are created equal.”

I don’t think we’ll achieve that lofty goal during my lifetime, but fighting for a noble cause is always worth it. And, hey, I’ve been wrong before.


  1. Way to go, Charles. I didn’t expect to live to see an African American President of the United States. The most I hoped for was someone who would understand the challenges of African Americans and others who have suffered abuse and discrimination and who would listen. Like you I was deeply moved and inspired by President Obama on 7/19 and frankly proud many Americans were too.