July 28, 2004
In their speeches on Tuesday night, both Ted Kennedy and Barack Obama reached back to the Declaration of Independence, that radical document, to make their case against George Bush and to reintroduce the concepts of democracy, justice, fairness, and equality.
Kennedy, who studded his speech with references to Paul Revere and John Adams, essentially gave a speech against monarchy, and so the Declaration was particularly fitting for him.
He talked about how, "for centuries, kings ruled by what they claimed was divine right." And he said, "The old system was based on inequality. Loyalty was demanded, never earned. Leaders ruled by fear, by force, by special favors for the few. Under that old, unequal system, the quality of your connections mattered more than the content of your character. Your voices were not heard. Your concerns did not matter. Your votes did not count."
He made his comparison explicit by denial. "Our struggle is not with some monarch named George who inherited the crown. Although it often seems that way," he said. "Our struggle is with the politics of fear and favoritism."
And he invoked the Declaration of Independence when he said that Bush has not honored the very first sentence of that document: "that America must give 'a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind.' "
Barack Obama, too, invoked the Declaration, citing the most famous--and yet least honored--words that "all men are created equal" and are granted "certain inalienable rights," including "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
It is this creed, Obama said, that should make Americans proud, not "the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy."
In a speech that recalled Mario Cuomo's convention oration two decades ago, Obama talked about immigrants and community and connectedness. And he seemed to echo Martin Luther King and Eugene V. Debs when he said, in his most powerful passage, "If there's a child on the South Side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandmother. If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties."
It took a special kind of courage to speak up for the rights of Arab Americans at this particular moment, and Obama demonstrated that courage.
Kennedy and Obama resubmitted the democratic promise contained in the Declaration of Independence.
In this age of neo-royalism, it was a fitting reminder.