Voters of many persuasions have viewed Barack Obama as coming from the left. Yet in his March 18 speech, addressing both his relationship to the black activist preacher Jeremiah Wright and the history of slavery and race oppression in the United States, Obama hymned the creation of the U.S. Constitution in terms that gave off no whiff of radicalism. By describing the founders as having "traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution," crediting delegates to the Constitutional Convention with "finally" making "their real declaration of independence," and calling the Constitution itself an "improbable experiment in democracy," Obama presented the document in exactly the terms in which it is presented at the National Constitution Center, where he made his speech.
In that reading, the Constitution transformed into national law certain quintessentially American affinities for freedom, equality, and democracy that went back to the first English settlements in the New World. (Obama's mistaking, probably out of haste, the men of Independence Hall for people who had fled across an ocean only enhances the feeling.) Even as they finally fulfilled those impulses, the founders were also engaging in an awful moral and logical contradiction, the "stain," as Obama puts it, of fostering the ultimate violation of freedom and equality: African slavery. Yet according to the reading that Obama invoked, at the core of the document itself lay potential for redeeming the original sin: through a process the framers both predicted and, because they were only human, failed to understand fully, the Constitution continuously unfolds -- under pressure, and at great sacrifice -- to correct founding errors and complete itself.
Obama's speech thus opened with a particularly jaunty rendering of what historians call the "consensus" interpretation of the founding. It has its points. Nobody expects anyone running for president to explore less happy interpretations of our constitution's history: the "strict constructionism," say, that turns a cold eye on amendments and judicial decisions crucial to Obama's faith in progress. Or readings that emphasize another stark omission made by the framers, enfranchising women (especially relevant to the current moment and all but absent from Obama's speech). Or arguments made for a century by progressive historians that the constitutional convention by no means meant to enable an "experiment in democracy," as Obama has it, but the very opposite: to repair what Edmund Randolph of Virginia, in the convention's opening speech, called "insufficient checks against the democracy" that had been unleashed by events leading up to the Declaration.
That kind of troublesome historical complexity has never been the stuff of campaign speeches. Until now. That's the irony. Obama's March 18 speech didn't seek merely to contrast the glories of the Constitution with the deeply scarring effects of racism in America. It sought to relate that contrast to the candidate's inability to disavow Wright, whose scabrous reading of American history (which does have a few points too), is as simplistic as the certified version it so heatedly opposes.
Hence the oddball and, in the end, probably insupportable position in which Obama has placed himself intellectually. He wants to deploy the most chewed-over clichés of fulsome founding-father adoration to arouse understanding of someone who sees nothing but criminality in the entire American project. Those irreconcilably opposed distortions of our shared history must cancel each other out. When they do, where is Obama?
Not only in the March 18 speech but also in earlier speeches, Obama has set well-worn historical references to goosebump-raising rhythms. In a 2006 speech on the need to face up to big national challenges, he said: "This was true for those who went to Lexington and Concord. It was true for those who lie buried at Gettysburg. It was true for those who built democracy's arsenal to vanquish fascism, and who then built a series of alliances and a world order that would ultimately defeat communism." From the minutemen to George H.W. Bush in fifty words or less: many have trod this ground before, but nobody -- not Peggy Noonan, not even Aaron Sorkin -- has done the muffled drumbeat more efficiently.
The March 18 speech has been praised for not talking down to its audience. That would mean Obama genuinely believes that our settling, founding, and progress through the centuries add up only to a string of moral triumphs that can't be described in terms elevated enough to do them justice -- marred, horribly, only by slavery and racial oppression. If he does believe that, he's got plenty of company. It's the view routinely dramatized in museum exhibits, documentaries, and other manifestations of well-funded public history, offered to large audiences who can't tolerate -- so our curators, as well as our politicians, seem to be certain -- even a hint of complication.
But maybe Obama believes something else about our country and about the Constitution he hopes to be sworn to protect, something more textured, thoughtful, thorny, and wide-ranging -- something more in keeping with the new and difficult position he has insisted on taking, and would need us to take with him, a position not only on race but, even more profoundly, on the possible benefits of understanding, even tolerating, attractions to the most extreme criticisms of our government's behavior, even criticisms of our very nature. That would be interesting, and possibly useful, for us and for Obama, to know.