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Two Speeches And Two Attempts To Reach Our Better Angels

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992-1994. He is the author of Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America’s Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever.  

Last night, John McCain gave the last speech of his presidential campaign, Barack Obama gave the first speech of his presidency, and each rose to the occasion.

By assuming personal responsibility for his defeat, pledging to cooperate with his victorious rival, and hushing his supporters when they jeered Obama, McCain once again became the unifying figure he was before a campaign that sought to do little more than solidify the Republican base. Ironically, while race (or at least xenophobia) seemed to be the subtext of much of McCain’s campaign, racial progress was the theme of his concession speech.

Awkwardly and archaically, but with transparent sincerity, McCain declared, “Though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound.” While McCain has often expressed his admiration for Theodore Roosevelt, who knew that he remembered, much less would remind the American people, that “a century ago” his hero’s “invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters”?

As he did before the campaign, McCain benefited from the contrast between his own graciousness and the boorishness of some of his party faithful. In the months ahead, McCain will likely try to work with Obama on some issues, hardcore conservatives will scapegoat their former standard-bearer for his defeat, and McCain will regain the iconic status he once enjoyed with the media and most Americans. As did Wendell Willkie and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the two may even become allies in a crisis or on common concerns.

In a similar spirit to McCain’s taking responsibility for his defeat, Obama credited his victory to others--his supporters, all Americans, and the American system of government. And as McCain explicitly celebrated racial progress, Obama spoke of it implicitly, while downplaying partisanship, ideology, and other potentially divisive themes. Obama’s remarks were designed to advance his strategies for the future, and last night that meant uniting Americans and asking them to address daunting challenges, including “two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.” Thus, his speech was soothing, serious, even somber, and seemingly designed to dampen both his supporters’ expectations and his opponents’ doubts.

Directly addressing those “whose support I have yet to earn,” Obama declared: “There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy I make as president, and we know that government can’t solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.”

While McCain recalled Theodore Roosevelt, Obama invoked “the first Republican President.” He quoted what “Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, ‘We are not enemies, but friends. ... Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.’” Racial progress, national unity, and humility in the presence of history--these are themes that, as the first Illinois President understood, touch “the better angels of our nature.”