Politics: Mr. Obama Goes to Philly

Last spring, Barack Obama holed up in a Center City hotel room and crafted the most important speech of his life. How that address came to be — and how people reacted to it — says as much about us as it does about him

IN THE BEGINNING, back in the summer of 2004, Barack Obama spoke himself into existence. With a single speech before the Democratic convention, he took form in the American consciousness: “Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let’s face it” — here he placed his hand over his heart — “my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely.”

With that phrase he tilted straight at his unexpected name and skin color, and set himself apart from all other stars in the political firmament — a zig set against a predominant union of zags.

He ascended. The rise happened almost without pause until this past March, midway through the primary season, when video surfaced of Obama’s longtime pastor and friend, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, exercising his right to free speech with a particular vigor. Among other things, he referred to the tragedy of September 11th, saying “America’s chickens are coming home to roost,” and admonished his congregation to sing “God DAMN America.”

Political poison. Unavoidable catastrophe. How, people wondered, could Obama possibly distance himself from his lethal cleric? How could any speech cast Jeremiah Wright from the earth, hide him behind the moon, push him into the silence and darkness of the void?

Obama’s candidacy, whatever may come of it, pivoted on the moment. And so the speech he gave in response bears examination, from the series of crises and decisions that created it, to the role Philadelphia played in its final form.

I learned recently that at the National Constitution Center — the site Obama would eventually choose to deliver his talk — a staff worker had kept the speech. Not a video, or an audio clip, but the physical speech itself, swiped afterward from the candidate’s lectern. I wanted to see it, because in a field of almost universal abstraction, here we find the promise of a measurable artifact. Something with weight and displacement and, perhaps, some revelation about its creator.

At the Constitution Center, Steve Frank, the head of exhibits, led me into the sheetrock caverns beneath the deceptively enormous building. We walked through a maze of hallways, stairwells, and doors requiring electronic codes, and finally arrived in a room of beiges and grays: the center’s storage room, which seemed designed to lull to sleep any potential cat burglar. A row of file cabinets stood along one wall, and Frank opened the putty-­colored doors of Cabinet 1A.

Cabinet 1A, it turned out, serves as a sort of odds-and-ends bin for history. It holds, for instance, Franklin Roosevelt’s fedora, the familiar hat from countless textbook photos, which the archivist warned me against trying on. (Roosevelt, for what it’s worth, had a remarkably small head.) And Cabinet 1A holds other treasures on its shelves: an early printing of Irving Berlin’s sheet music for “God Bless America,” for example, and the first public, printed copy of the Constitution, published by the ­Pennfylvania Packet just days after the Founding Fathers drafted it, a block away.

And somewhere, in Cabinet 1A, there waited Barack Obama’s speech on race in America, delivered at 10:53 in the morning on March 18th, 2008.