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Obama shows up our broken leadership


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Dear America: If you really don’t want or appreciate Barack Obama, can we have him … please?

Because while Australia’s economy has been the envy of the world, when it comes to political rhetoric – the currency of democracy – we are busted-arse broke.

Obama’s speech last Sunday, marking the 50th anniversary of bloody racial clashes in Selma, Alabama was one of the best performances given by a President, or indeed any other leader, for ages. Rather than enduring a clunky recounting of the Presidential masterpiece, you can read and watch it here for yourself.

Obama’s formidable gifts play a big part in its success, but it’s not all down to what he was born with. Congress could be generously described as fractious, but an American President can draw upon the words and deeds of Presidents past, irrespective of party. It’s a unique thing about their system, and it gave Obama a rich shared history with which to charm his audience.

So no eyebrows were raised when the African American Democrat talked about Republican Ronald Reagan re-affirming the Voting Rights Act, and then in the next breath, alluding to JFK’s torch being passed. Or FDR, or Lincoln. Or even the President who held on to his slaves tightest, (especially at night), Thomas Jefferson. It’s just the way things are done there.

We are in this country much more tribal. Or maybe just more feral. Even if he wanted to, Tony Abbott could not channel Gough Whitlam. Nor could Julia Gillard channel John Howard. Well, not without severe nose bleeds for them, and the jaws of the rest of the nation smashing floorboards in disbelief.

But the stand out for me , in an outstanding speech, was Obama’s almost casual mention of gay people. He does it all the time. He did it his 2008 acceptance speech and, whenever appropriate, has done so ever since. It’s unremarkable for him. It took the speech beyond an interesting example of American rhetoric, another pitch for American exceptionalism, and into something more personal.

In Australia years grind by without leaders dropping the G word. Some would be more likely to explode an F bomb. Tony Abbott would likely gag on gay. And Julia Gillard’s position against gay marriage, while “living in sin” with a hairdresser, had all the authenticity of a three-dollar note. And about as much value.

The speech had its spin, of course it did. But stand back and look at the tapestry he wove. Sure it was a bit of seduction, but damn it sometimes we need a little romance.

At Selma on Sunday Obama talked about gay Americans struggle for equality as part of the wider sweep of his country’s efforts to pay up on its promise to minorities: we are all created equal.

Obama spoke about the blood of gay Americans running in the streets in their fight for basic rights, along with the struggles of black Americans, and women, and anyone else outside the mainstream. He spoke of gays simply as a fact of his country’s life: its dark past, uneven present and, because Obama is an American, its shining future.

In Australia, when and if we are spoken about, it’s as usually as part of a controversy, such as gay marriage, or gay adoption. Or mincing home from Mardi Gras (comedy working just as well as controversy). Obama treats gays as part of the national furniture; here we are rarely in the room.

Some argue his contribution to his country’s trip towards equality is nothing more than being the first black American President. OK, well Everest is only a mountain: climb one, you’ve climbed them all.

The speech had its spin, of course it did. But stand back and look at the tapestry he wove. Sure it was a bit of seduction, but damn it sometimes we need a little romance. Theatrics? You betcha. Shameless emotional manipulator? Yep. Brazen Show Pony? Absolutely. Meet the master.

And none of that matters. Because at a very basic level a leader should be able to make people feel good, not afraid. Because it is nice to be treated as part of the furniture – as a fact, not an issue. Even if we have to look to Alabama on a Sunday morning for it.

Leith Knapman is the pen name of an Adelaide writer.

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