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Obama’s Great Speeches Become History in ‘The Power of Words’

By Jeffrey Rindskopf

In a week that marked both President’s Day and the 75th anniversary of Japanese internment during World War 2, an audience gathered at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) for an advance screening of the Smithsonian Channel’s new documentary The Obama Years: The Power of Words. It was a night to celebrate the ideological and oratorical triumphs of our past President Barack Obama.

The power of words is particularly important at this time,” said U.S. Rep. for Washington’s 7th Congressional District Pramila Jayapal, addressing the audience before the screening began.

MOHAI’s Executive Director Leonard Garfield first took the stage after a reception featuring hors d’oeuvres from local sources to welcome the audience and introduce the congresswoman. Beginning with her speech, the current administration cast a shadow over the evening’s proceedings.

After expressing her admiration for Obama—as the first Indian-American woman to serve in the U.S. House, she too is a first in her elected position—Jayapal noted she was now “in the midst of so many fights I believe are critical to this democracy,” referring to the ongoing political struggles she’s become embroiled in now that the Obama administration is, quite literally, history.

Jayapal was followed by Diana Langley Robinson, director of project management at Comcast, who touched upon the company’s philanthropy, including their sponsorship of the screening, before briefly introducing another Comcast representative Leron Lee to speak about the company’s newly-launched Black Employees Network.

The Smithsonian Channel’s Senior Vice President Chris Hoelzl gave the documentary its final introduction. Since presidencies are evaluated across decades, The Obama Years, Hoelzl said, isn’t intended as a definitive record on Obama’s time in office, and instead focuses on “a handful of speeches we think will stand the test of time.”

It’s hard to argue with that assessment. Going in chronological order from Obama’s catapulting onto the national stage during the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC) to his singing “Amazing Grace” during the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston in 2015, the documentary highlighted many of the former president’s most important and moving speeches, while talking heads from his advisors provided important historical and personal context for each.

Perhaps some of Obama’s power as a speaker was due to his being a writer and storyteller himself, having published a bestselling book before even taking office. But even that wouldn’t account for his ability to relate with an audience no matter the context, appearing equally comfortable addressing a black church congregation and trying his hand at stand-up comedy during the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

A common theme of these speeches, and of the night, was race. Obama didn’t so much choose this topic as much as he had it thrust upon him repeatedly, first during the 2008 Democratic primaries and then over and over again during his two terms as president.

He finally addressed the issue on his own terms in Selma, Ala., while commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday protest marches, in a speech his chief speechwriter Jon Favreau considers to be Obama’s finest moment as an orator, as well as the best summation of his ideology. I’m inclined to agree.

If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done. The American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation,” Obama said. “…For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, there’s new ground to cover, there are more bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.”

A panel followed the screening, led by Hoelzl and featuring E. Claire Jerry, curator at the National Museum of American History, and Pamela Banks, current president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. Both related stories of seeing the President speak early in his rise to prominence, and from there witnessing his trajectory and growth as an orator on the national stage.

The Q&A session that followed was a touch awkward, as Q&A sessions often are, until the best question of the night came from a shy-voice teenage girl at the far end of the stage.

How did he move you?

In her answer, Banks praised Obama for being transparent and honest, as well as his rebuking stereotypes as a devoted family-man, before concluding with a sentiment that surely rang true throughout the crowd. “This documentary only makes me miss him more.”

The Obama Years: The Power of Words premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

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