Much More Than Race: What Makes a Great Speech Great

by George Lakoff

We are on the cusp of a new politics in America. It should be dated from March 18, 2008, the date of Barack Obama’s landmark speech, A More Perfect Union. The usual pundits have looked mainly at the speech’s surface theme: race. They weren’t wrong. It was indeed the most important statement about race in recent history.

But it was much more. It was a general call to a new politics and an outline for what it needs to be. Just as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was about much more than the war dead on that battlefield, so Obama’s speech-widely hailed as in the same ballpark as Lincoln’s-went beyond race to the nature of America, its ideals, and its future.

To get an appreciation for the greatness of Obama’s speech, we have to start with its context: What were the problems Obama faced in writing it, and what were the constraints on him?

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George Lakoff is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, Senior Fellow at the Rockridge Institute, and author of the forthcoming “The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st Century Politics with an 18th Century Brain,” available June 2, 2008, Viking/Penguin.