Shortly after the votes of the Wisconsin primary had been counted, and Barack Obama was declared the winner, he once again took the podium. He was in Houston, Texas, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd in a huge sports arena. The cheering rose in waves, spilling over him, blue placards saying "CHANGE" flashed in the bright lights. He stood looking around at a rainbow of people, smiling, waving, turning in a slow circle. He then announced the win in Wisconsin, hugely significant for, like Virginia, the results cut across all demographic lines, an illustration once again of the depth and breadth of his candidacy. Yes he could.
The days prior to that moment had been driven by negative ads and sniping by the Clinton campaign, a tone set by Senator Clinton early in the week when, attending a political rally, she insisted that words don't count. Solutions are what matter and she was the solutions candidate. It was a surprising, even stunning comment, especially coming from a person who has spent most of her adult life speaking to people about what to her matters. The intent, clearly, was to discount Barack Obama's speeches, which were resonating with voters, young and old. Discounting the value of the word, however, seemed disingenuous and tactical; yet there it was: Words don't count.
But words do count. Language counts. In Obama's speech to the Houston crowd, he paused while explaining why he had decided to run for the presidency now, this year, and had not, as many had advised, waited for a more opportune time. "The time has come," he has said, "to reach for what we know is possible." To make his point he reminded his audience of the words of Martin Luther King and "the fierce urgency of now." Five words, capturing the essence of what Obama was trying to convey. "I'll be the president who finally sends a message to the black, white, and brown faces beyond our shores; from the halls of power to the huts of Africa that says, 'You matter to America. Your future is our future. And our moment is now.'" The fierce urgency of now. Eloquent. Powerful. Pregnant with meaning. Those are words that matter.
It's to words that we turn when our soul is ravaged, when our heart swells with emotion, when loss haunts our days. We stand before grave sites and fashion eulogies of pain and remembrance, as did W.H. Auden when he wrote, "The stars are not wanted now; put out every one, pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, pour away the ocean and sweep the woods; for nothing now can ever come to any good." Words.
Consider the words of Aeschylus: "He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God." Words, yet words that transcend, that wrench the heart and speak to us in the dead of night. "Against our will comes wisdom ..."
Or the sad and deeply touching words of love and loss by Han Wu-ti: "The sound of her silk skirt has stopped. On the marble pavement dust grows. Her empty room is cold and still. Fallen leaves are piled against the doors ... How can I bring my aching heart to rest?" Simple, beautiful, lyrical.
Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, "Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love." Every word has weight; every sentence a journey. Words.
The poet Billy Collins crafted a poem titled, "Silence." Here is an excerpt: "The stillness of the cup and the water in it, the silence of the moon, and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun. The silence when I hold you against my chest, the silence of the window above us, and the silence when you rise and turn away." Words.
In 1956, John F. Kennedy wrote, "For without belittling the courage with which men have died, we should not forget those acts of courage with which men have lived ... A man does what he must &
in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures &
and that is the basis of all human morality."
Of course the art of politics is to propose and then, with skill and commitment, dispose. Obama has never discounted the need to act. But in the beginning are words that inspire and define us as a people. Mere words: our Constitution; our Bill of Rights; our Declaration of Independence; the Gettysburg Address. Tyranny begins with the gun but never fails to censor the free exchange of words and ideas knowing fundamentally that the pen will always be mightier than the sword.
"I am in this race because I don't want to see us spend the next year re-fighting the Washington battles of the 1990s. I don't want to pit Blue America against Red America. I want to lead a United States of America. I don't want this election to be about the past, because if it's about the future, we will win. If this election is about whether or not to end this war, or pass universal health care, or make college affordable, it won't just be a Democratic victory; it will be an American victory." Words count. These are the words of Barack Obama.