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Obama’s Praiseworthy Notre Dame Address

The president taught us a valuable lesson about civil discourse at his commencement address in South Bend.

by
Jim Kearney

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May 24, 2009 - 12:28 am
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Against all odds, Barack Obama spoke and his words resonated with me. No tingling Chris Matthews sensations, mind you, but a loud, Marv Albert-sized “Yes!” and a hope that our political leaders would somehow learn to speak this way.

Before you judge me possessed by the infectious mania which swept the man into office, please read this segment from President Obama’s Notre Dame speech. (It comes about 13:50 in if you watch the video.)

A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an email from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life, but that’s not what was preventing him from voting for me.

What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website — an entry that said I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor said that he had assumed I was a reasonable person, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.”

Fair-minded words.

After I read the doctor’s letter, I wrote back to him and thanked him. I didn’t change my position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that — when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do — that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground. …

… Understand — I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it — indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory — the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.

Now here’s why I liked it:

  1. He’s telling a story. This is how you get an audience emotionally involved. Okay, I’m listening.
  2. The story has a sympathetic protagonist; a doctor who is a man of conscience and doesn’t like being mischaracterized as a wing nut stereotype you read on the web all the time. Now I’m rooting for the guy in the story.
  3. “Fair-minded words.” A phrase becomes an incantation. He’s listening. The words resonate with him. They resonate with me. He’s talking about toning down political rhetoric, and he cites an excess committed by someone on his own team.

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