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Where's the Music?

“There’ve been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is going to come.”

Sam Cooke, the great R&B singer, wrote those words in 1963 following a visit to a civil rights event in what was then Jim Crow North Carolina. Last night, an era and a thousand miles away, Barack Obama echoed Cooke. “America, this is one of those moments,” Obama said. “I believe that as hard as it will be, the change we need is coming.” He then mentioned health care.

If you’re sick, nothing is as important as health care -- so I don’t knock it. But the subject is prosaic, and it was just one car in a long train of programs designed to rebut the charge that Obama’s slogan -- “Change!” -- is political cotton candy. Obama went on and on: taxes and schooling, outsourcing, and Social Security and energy and drilling and wing power and solar power and …etc. It was good. It was necessary, but it was poetry for auditors. There’s a difference between interesting and inspirational.

In contrast, Cooke’s phrase was written to evoke the civil rights struggle. It was music about music. It was purportedly written in response to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind,” which asked, “How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” Last night, the answer came in a shower of fireworks and tears -- a momentous event, a speech that did not do it justice.

The Cooke song came at me by surprise. It is on my iPod, but I had hit “shuffle,” and so I had no idea what was coming next. I was exercising, and all of sudden, on the day an African American took command of the Democratic Party and staked a claim on the White House, the song came on. I stopped. I was struck. I teared up a bit -- it has been one of those weeks for me -- and I played the song over and over again. It was still in my mind when Obama spoke.

Something about Obama banishes music. His speech lacked it. It never soared and it never moved and it lacked pacing, pulse and a sense of the moment. Even the line that should have been evocative of Cooke and the civil rights movement -- of Montgomery and Selma and Memphis, of capricious murder and senseless humiliation, of slavery and penury and the doffing of caps, of being a boy in a man’s world and a girl when you are a woman, of coming in on Thursdays to clean, of sitting in the balcony, of segregated water fountains and state parks and, of course, school -- went by virtually unnoticed.

Maybe that was intended. Barack Obama must remain a black man who happens to be running for president and not a black candidate. Maybe it was intended because Obama cannot be culturally black, otherwise white and Hispanic America would resent it. Maybe it was intended because television is the cool medium and one must be cool. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

A friend of Obama’s suggested recently that he tell the story more often of his mother. She was a remarkable woman -- so strong, so principled, so smart, so committed to her children. She was without prejudice, open to the world and embracing of it. Obama replied that he could not do that. He would go to pieces.

We have to honor deep hurts and mourning that never ends. John McCain sometimes talks about his POW days as if it all happened to someone else. Obama apparently has his own emotional scar tissue. He’s entitled. Being a mixed-race kid of a single mom is an uplifting story to the listener but painful to the teller. Not everything needs to be said.
Still, for whatever reason, the tear I got from Cooke, I did not get from Obama. History passed like New Year’s -- a tick on the clock but, somehow, everything remained the same. A great speaker delivered a good speech.

“I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like the river,
I’ve been running every since.
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come.”

Sam Cooke, rest in peace. It’s here.

By Richard Cohen  | August 29, 2008; 10:21 AM ET
Categories:  Cohen  | Tags:  Richard Cohen  
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Huh? A presidential candidate addressing his nominating convention is supposed to deliver a speech that sounds like a song written by Sam Cooke or Bob Dylan? At a time when people, some of them well-meaning, wonder if he's all style and no substance? When did this happen?

Posted by: Breells | August 29, 2008 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Cohen, you would bad mouth Obama if he discovered the cure for cancer. We know your deal: McCain is "stronger" on Israel, so he's your man. Why don't you do us all a favor and move there?

Posted by: Dan | August 29, 2008 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Gosh Richard! Nice babbling article. You should not have watched the speech on the Fox news network. The late great Carl T Rowan was right about you. Maybe you and Joe Lieberman can car pool to the GOP convention. Don't forget to poke your sticks out at Iran before you go.

Posted by: mjr2054 | August 29, 2008 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Cohen, may I suggest decaf.

It's worked wonders for me.

Posted by: binkynh | August 29, 2008 11:55 AM | Report abuse

This is what happens to commentators who have been living inside the Beltway for way too long.

Richard Cohen is so out of touch that he has lost touch with the common man, become a cynic and therefore is obsolete for today's audience.

I believe it's time to retire sir. And if you can do us a favor, take McCain with you when you move permanently to Florida.

Posted by: Eros Wong | August 29, 2008 12:04 PM | Report abuse

haha how I like that - all the people who are surprised that it was not "inspirational" enough - hey you didnt think he could do that right? You didnt think he could move from being an inspirational speaker to a speaker who is agressive and presidential and winning? Guess what: this man is not just the hope of acadamics and first time voters and airheads.

I think you have to see this speech in context of the other great speeches Barak Obama has held and in what he had to accomplish in this one (and did). There have been more exiting speeches in the history of man - yes. But I have the feeling that this speech has firmly put him in the path to be the next president - repeating the Jefferson Dinner speach would not have done that.

This speech has the chance of marking the beginnign of a new Amerika - only the future of course will tell us that but in about two months we will know more about its resonance.

I have a feeling it will be a truly historic speach

And that might be premature but to actually state "that it never moved" wow - what a commentary - it sounds so naive to me to write that - did you even listen to it? But lets just wait a little and see. If these speach is not going to move things I dont know which speech will.

Posted by: Doktor | August 29, 2008 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Those who have read Cohen's ready to publish and glowing review of McCain's acceptance speech tell me that it brought tears to their eyes (the review of course, the speech won't happen until sometime after the next hurricane).


Posted by: DEF | August 29, 2008 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Why not quote Buddy Guy's "Change in the Weather"?:

Change in the weather
Something is happening here
Change in the weather
Change in the weather
People walkin' round in fear

Yeah, ah, huh, you better duck and run
Get under cover 'cause a change is come
Storm warnings and it looks like rain
Be nothin' left after the hurricane
There is a jungle it ain't no lie
Look at the people
They got terror in their eyes
Bad wind is comin' it can't be denied
They're runnin' with the dogs
And afraid to die

Posted by: Richard | August 29, 2008 12:42 PM | Report abuse

...Or you could read this piece and think, what a shame--on this momentous occasion in American history, the shameful political reality prevents this historic candidate from talking about what a day this is. I'll tell you one thing--once he's elected he will not be so constrained, and I think Cohen and myself and others will be allowed to enjoy it fully. We just wanted more from this moment, and are impatient for the dream to be fulfilled.

Very moving piece, Richard. I wish Sam and so many others were here to see it as well.

Posted by: Lucky | August 29, 2008 12:46 PM | Report abuse

You'd have to be blind, deaf and dumb to have written this here review of Obama's speech....

Do us a favor and actually watch the speeches you comment on Cohen.

I really like the "smashing night for McCain" crap you came up with after Hillary's speech.

Again, actually watching the speeches should be a prerequisite for commenting on them...

Posted by: Cohen is a moron.... | August 29, 2008 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Cohen seems to be ignoring the fact that Obama has given many speeches incorporating the themes whose absence are lamented in this column. They were spectacular speeches, and as an Obama supported I was moved by them. But Obama is now in the general election, and he must appeal to voters who are skeptical of him, in part due to the very fact that much of his campaign has been more abstract than substantive (I love him, but that's fact). To convert the skeptics he must spell out, in clear terms, why he should be president, what exactly "change" means, and how the story will go so very differently in a McCain presidency. That is what he did last night. The speech he gave was meant to satisfy those of less sentimental political leanings, clearly not including Mr. Cohen.

Posted by: Brian | August 29, 2008 12:58 PM | Report abuse

This is an interesting pick, I didnt think he would pick her becauseo of the scandal surrounding her in Alaska.? You can see old pictures of her and read her full bio at

Posted by: Peter | August 29, 2008 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Damn Richard. You REALLY blew it this time.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 29, 2008 1:03 PM | Report abuse

well there you go again, as One of the recent brain-dead-repugnantcannotsee candidates is reputed to have said (in the last coherent thought that "great communicator" ever expressed): Dickie-boy-Zionazi Cohen is the first to start the old tired talking head chant that the overwhelmingly conservative media used to elevate party boy cokehead benito bush over the Intelligent and Qualified Al Gore in 2000: "too wonkish"
Give it a rest dickie-head. we're all voting for Obama (of course, the repgnazis will steal this election anyway, so it won't matter.....)

Posted by: Michael | August 29, 2008 1:11 PM | Report abuse

cohen you are childish, petty, and just hatin on Senator Obama. It's sad that we finally get a politician that speaks in a way that inspires, galvinizes, and motivates the citizens to change for the better and all you can come up with is to compare it to a Sam Cooke song?

Posted by: tony | August 29, 2008 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Hard hitting! Seriously, what's on your ipod? That's even lamer than the being-vsited-by-dead-granddaddy premise.

Posted by: Fake-Name-Guy | August 29, 2008 1:13 PM | Report abuse

The speech was boilerplate convention fare. It was filled with hyperbole as McCain's will be next week. Obama promised to correct all that ails us as long as we do our share and empower the government to extend its regulatory reach. As long as we turn a blind eye to a huge tax increase on our most productive citizens so income transfers from taxpayers to nontaxpayers can be effected, we will see frowns turn into smiles, swords become ploughshares and criminals embrace the law. Only the terminally naive accept this pap every four years, regardless of the source. Abe Lincoln had it right: You can fool some of the people all of the time.

Posted by: Paul Bloustein | August 29, 2008 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Cohen,

Change has passed you by and you did not notice.

Posted by: David | August 29, 2008 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Time to commit Cohen and Krauthammer to Happy Acres.

Posted by: DirtyHarry | August 29, 2008 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Sam Cooke! We're way into the 21st century here, old man. I have finally figured out why you are so critical of Obama. You don't get it. McSame doesn't get it, neither do you. Retirement is right on the horizon, it's time for you to start moving in that direction, the times have passed you by. Obama delivered more music in one paragraph of his speech than ALL of your columns. galling, eh?

Posted by: PreAmerikkkan | August 29, 2008 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Did you forget to take of the white sheet also while listening to Sam Cooke waiting for the Obama Speech? Oh! I forgot! You were still hiding behind closed doors where no one would see you enjoying his music! No wonder you can not accept Historic Greatness when it is right in front of you face. If you are this racial bias I am now wondering why the Washington Post keep you on and actual submit your JUNK of an Article!!

Posted by: Esmitty | August 29, 2008 1:40 PM | Report abuse

How utterly naive and nonsensical. Part of what made Lincoln such a great president was not just his great political skills, but also his own humility, his ability to see his own limited humanity in the face of such a crisis. Had Lincoln touted his own horn as the one who was destined to be the "savior of the nation" he would have been derided as an egomaniac. Only others could say that of him. His humility was part of his greatness.

Likewise, had Obama strode onstage and proclaimed himself the fulfillment of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and the day to be the one when black America had come of age, he would also be called, and rightly so, a self-absorbed egomaniac. Cohen's implication that Obama should have tooted his own horn is past ludicrous, it is absolute lunacy. Only history, in reflective hindsight, will be able to determine whether Obama embodied the fulfillment of King's "Dream".

Cohen, were I a civics, government, or history professor, and you submitted this drivel in my class, you would receive an "F". This piece of nonsense was abysmal.

Posted by: tharriso | August 29, 2008 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Did you listen to the same speech that I did? I was driving and listening and happened to stop at a gas station. Three other cars were parked there, all listening to the same speech--all of us rapt, all of us white folks in a rural county, all of us pausing late at night to listen to a politician. Finally one person whispered under his breath--"god he sounds good . . ." This sounds like a fake americana moment from a syrupy movie, but it happened. Where were you Cohen?

Posted by: somebody | August 29, 2008 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Richard Cohen is not a Republican. Republicans don't cry when listening to songs on their i-pod.

Posted by: Eugene | August 29, 2008 1:48 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Cohen is blinded by his fear that Obama may actually become President over his preferred candidate. I suspect Cohen suffers from some not so hidden problems and to hide his problems he dragged out the Sam Cooke piece so that his problem might not be recognized .. I believe Cohen wrote his piece on Obama's speech well before the speech was actually given because Cohen had already made up what mind is left .Obams did a great job of presenting his ideas especially to those who might not know him as well as others .

Posted by: james McWilliams | August 29, 2008 1:51 PM | Report abuse

If Obama had given a speech that resembled a Dylan song Cohen would have labled him as naive and idealistic. Ignore him.

Posted by: jim | August 29, 2008 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Sam Cooke, rest in peace. It’s here.

Yep, despite folks like Richard "Professional Concern Troll" Cohen to avert it, it's here.

Posted by: ibc | August 29, 2008 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Cohen, how can you be so sure that McCain, erratic as he is, will remain "stronger" on Israel than Obama.... who is smart as a whip?
Sam Cooke, as much as I love his music, was gospel to the core. Obama's speech was one of the best I've heard in my 60 years, with much of it's cadence resemblying the gospel-ness, the rhythm, one would hear from a Southern preacher. There was a lot more Sam Cooke in that speech than Cohen wants to admit... too bad his blind support of McCain skews every single thing he writes these days.

Posted by: badgervan | August 29, 2008 2:42 PM | Report abuse

It appears that Cohen had two reviews of Barack Obama's acceptance speech prepared ahead of time.

If Obama had issued a soaring inspirational speech "full of music" Cohen, in keeping with recent Republican talking points, would have derided him as an empty suit. "Where is the substance?" Cohen would have asked.

A hard-hitting kick off to the campaign, which laid out a clear vision of his policies, as Obama actually did deliver, got Review B. All Cohen had to do was fill in the blanks of the two sentences in which he listed issues that Obama brought up, then it was off to bed.

Posted by: Carey | August 29, 2008 2:46 PM | Report abuse

45 years ago I happened to catch by accident the entire Martin Luther King speech on WJLB radio in Detroit. I was a teenager, and I was transfixed. I had never heard such an inspirational speech in my life. As a young, white teenager, I felt like I was part of something much larger than myself, and not like an outsider looking in.

Cohen is an outsider looking in...a critic who sees history unfolding before his eyes and realizes that he cannot be apart of it, due to the way he has chosen to live his life. Obama's speech was inspirational, as well it should be. He is trying to inspire the nation to fulfill our potential. "This has never been about me, it has always been about you" pretty well sums up why this man is so successful.

I do not expect McCain to inspire anybody, just scare the pants off as many people as he can into voting for him.

This election will turn on the inspired grassroots field workers who turnout the vote for Barack Obama.

I predicted earlier this week that Cohen will wind up trashing the two little Obama girls before this is over...he cannot help himself..He is on the wrong side of history.

Posted by: LeftGuy | August 29, 2008 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Me Damn America

Posted by: Barack Hussein | August 29, 2008 4:31 PM | Report abuse

This from the man that keeps telling us the Bush is on the comback trail.

Enjoy your delusions, demented man.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 29, 2008 5:14 PM | Report abuse

Hmmm. From what I've seen from Cohen, I'd guess his idea of an inspirational speech is "Bomb, bomb, bomb..bomb,bomb Iran" set to rather old 60's Beach Boys music. He's another joke of a Post commentator and an out-of-touch oldster like his idol.

Posted by: jreed11665 | August 29, 2008 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Hmmm. From what I've seen from Cohen, I'd guess his idea of an inspirational speech is "Bomb, bomb, bomb..bomb,bomb Iran" set to rather old 60's Beach Boys music. He's another joke of a Post commentator and an out-of-touch oldster like his idol.

Posted by: jreed11665 | August 29, 2008 6:05 PM | Report abuse

ha ha....I am laughing at this column because I totally predicted it a few days ago. Hang it up, Cohen, we see right through you.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 29, 2008 6:41 PM | Report abuse

Before we lionize Sam Cooke, you might want to look up the circumstances surrounding his untimely death.
Great song, though.

Posted by: feralboy12 | August 29, 2008 8:06 PM | Report abuse

The song that keeps popping up in my mind when Obama talks of his growing up is, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." It was just a good all around tune with lots of nuance. Good speech, think he held back on evoking emotions but still was obvious in the mounting sound level to a poignant few words. I prefer a speech more like one person talking to another.

Posted by: bwcolq | August 29, 2008 8:50 PM | Report abuse

And you know, the darkest hour
Is always, always, just before the dawn
And it seems to be a long time
it seems to be a long time
it seems to be a long time
Such a long long long long time
before the dawn

Posted by: pressF1 | August 29, 2008 9:25 PM | Report abuse

Ah, ah, ah, were looking for more beautiful orations you could deride as just fluff. Instead, Obama sounds presidential and statesmanlike, speaking to us like we can hear and understand. Soooo disappointing...

Posted by: politicaldukie | August 30, 2008 1:17 AM | Report abuse

the only commentators I've seen/heard that panned Obama's speech are the angry Mr. Cohen and CNN's designated GOP-bot Lesley Sanchez. everyone else, including all the "regular people" I've talked to today (including some die-hard clinton supporters, independents, and republicans) gave it an A or A+.

let's face it, Obama knew the stakes were high and rose to the occasion. that speech was equal parts tough, specific, visionary, and personal. It was the speech Obama needed to deliver and the one America needed to hear from him.

Posted by: hornsfan | August 30, 2008 1:32 AM | Report abuse

"Something about Obama banishes music." Cohen

You are pathetic. I find Barack's speeches to be imaginative, lyrical, intelligent, and inspirational.

Your old white goat, McCain, is an artifact of the ancient past who relives his Viet-Nam nightmare every day of his life, and bases all his thinking about how to deal with other nations on it.

He is a dangerous and delusional man, and you jabber about banishing music. What garbage.

Posted by: Elizabeth Gilmore | August 30, 2008 3:35 AM | Report abuse

More and more I wonder why I waste my time reading Cohen. I keep thinking he might have a good argument for the other side. He's beyond a good argument. The good news is that I'll quit wasting my time. No more Cohen

Posted by: Anonymous | August 30, 2008 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Obama's speech was purposeful.In an ideal world one could wax eloquently about how far the country has travelled to overcome historical burdens. Scoring emotional points about civil rights isn't a priority for the demographic he needed to reach in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Obama's mere presence on the stage, said more than words could ever describe.

Posted by: TX4Obama | August 30, 2008 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Obama's speech was purposeful.In an ideal world one could wax eloquently about how far the country has travelled to overcome historical burdens. Scoring emotional points about civil rights isn't a priority for the demographic he needed to reach in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Obama's mere presence on the stage, said more than words could ever describe.

Posted by: TX4Obama | August 30, 2008 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Cohan has no idea who Obama is. Lately he was asking Obama to come clean with American people. He said Obama is an inspirational speaker,but an empty suit. He demanded Obama to draw a “road map” for where he would take this nation to. Cohan is jealous. Now, let us see how Cohan reacts to his hero’s selection of Sarah Palin.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 30, 2008 2:34 PM | Report abuse

stop it, just stop it.

Obama is going to win. Nothing is going to change that fact.

now go to sleep everyone and wake up to a new life sheesh

Posted by: Kimmo | September 1, 2008 6:22 PM | Report abuse

A man without tears is like a souless ghost of the past.

The issue isn't whether there was music or not in Obama's speech.Rather the issue is Cohen heard the music but couldn't hear.But millions of ordinary men and women wept across the country.Real Americans not some Cohens who shed ters for Zion only!!!.

Posted by: | September 2, 2008 6:31 PM | Report abuse

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