Monday, September 4, 2023

the president sings Amazing Grace

Cody Keenan, Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America (Mariner Books, 2022)

We all know about how President Obama, speaking in 2015 at the memorial service for the victims of the Charleston shooting, wowed the congregation by seguing from talking about grace into actually singing the hymn "Amazing Grace." And Zoe Mulford wrote a song about it, "The President Sang Amazing Grace." I wrote about the song and linked to Joan Baez's recording.

So I'm browsing in the public library and find this memoir by Obama's chief speechwriter at the time, and think, "I bet he has some interesting background information on that." He does. First is that the speech preparation is embedded in a week of utter chaos, as the president and his staff also wait for the Supremes to issue rulings on the ACA and marriage equality, and the speechwriters have to prepare speeches in advance for every possible way those could go. Then there's the challenge of a white guy writing a sermon, basically, for a Black president to deliver in a Black church (actually in the basketball arena down the street, because it was larger), which he handles by intense collaboration with the president and by a lot of consultation.

So they've just finished reacting to the Obergefell decision, Obama reads the good-news speech and calls Obergefell to congratulate him, and then rushes off to fly to Charleston. Keenan, as keeper of the speech and manager of any changes to be made to the text, is at the president's side for the flight, and as they get into Air Force One, this happens:
He stood up, ducking under the ceiling as he buttoned his coat. "You know, if it feels right, I might sing it."
Halfway through stuffing the pages into my backpack, I froze and looked up at him. I was pretty sure I'd just heard him say he might sing "Amazing Grace" during the eulogy. ... But I wasn't about to tell him that singing was a risk. I knew he thought of himself as a good singer.
He was looking at me, waiting to see what I thought ... Bone-tired, all I could come up with was a phrase he'd recently told me Sasha was fond of.
"You do you, man."
When they arrive at Charleston, the Obamas go to the arena while Keenan, the pressure off because it's out of his hands now, relaxes on the plane. He sends an e-mail to his staff back at the White House.
"P said he might sing 'Amazing Grace' in the eulogy."
"Um, what?" Terry replied.
"OMG," added Kristen.
"That would be the greatest thing ever," Ben wrote. "Such a good idea. People will love it."
Keenan watches the speech from the plane on TV. He gives a detailed report from a professional speechwriter's perspective: how the speech is going, the reaction of the extremely responsive Black audience, the particularly moving passages, where Obama had written the text himself and where he improvises while speaking. Then we get to it.
Now he'd outdone himself, stepping up to turn the text into a script ... A Black president, backed by Black bishops, eulogizing a Black victim to a crowd of mostly Black mourners. A Black church service on national television. How often did America see something like that? How often was something like this a quintessentially American event? ...
He'd long since grown into being president. We were watching him make the presidency bigger in real time. And there was one act left ...
"If we can find that grace ..."
"Uh huh ..."
"... anything is possible."
"My my."
"If we can tap that grace, everything can change."
Fewer than a dozen people in the world knew what was about to happen.
"Amazing grace."
He paused, then repeated the words for good measure.
"Amazing grace."
Obama looked into the distance, looked down at the text, and shook his head in awe.
Eleven seconds went by. It was a moment of genuine drama. Was he making up his mind? Was he going to take the leap of faith?
I wondered what people who were watching must be thinking: Had he lost his place?
Then he began to sing.
After the first two syllables, "Ah-maaaay," one of the bishops laughed in astonishment. But it was too early for most of the world to know what Obama was dong.
Obama leaned into the next two syllables - "ZIIII-iii-iiiing graaaaaaace" - to make damn sure they knew.
The choir leaped to its feet ... By the time Obama hit "how sweet the sound," the whole arena was singing with him. ... Obama's bet, that he wouldn't be left alone, had paid off.
On the flight home, he explains something:
"What was with the pause? [asks Keenan] Dramatic effect?"
"No, man. You know what the thing about 'Amazing Grace' is? ... You gotta start low. Or by the time you get to 'a wretch like me,' you're in trouble. Your voice cracks."
Later, Keenan marries his co-worker Kristen. A week after Joe Biden is elected, they have a daughter. They name her Grace.

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