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Black History Month documentary: Obama legacy is ‘Power of Words’

E. Claire Jerry of the National Museum of American History (from left) and former Barack Obama staffers Kaleshia Page and Michael Strautmanis participated in a panel discussion in Chicago Feb. 8 after a private screening of "The Obama Years: The Power of Words" documentary. | Karen Kring/For the Sun-Times

Debate continues over the legacy of former President Barack Obama, but a new Smithsonian Channel documentary, “The Obama Years: The Power of Words,” asserts that at least one thing is irrefutable: He will take his place among rare past presidents whose oratory defined a nation and the times over which he presided.

“There are only a few presidents whom I would consider writers. Thomas Jefferson wrote. Theodore Roosevelt wrote. Barack Obama wrote,” historian Douglas Brinkley says in the film. “Someday there will be the collected speeches of Barack Obama, and I think they’ll tell us more about our hopes, dreams, aspirations and dark realities than any other document to represent that era.”

Narrated by Chicago actor Jesse Williams of Grey’s Anatomy, the Black History Month documentary premiering Feb. 27 on the Smithsonian Channel examines Obama’s presidency through six speeches — from the 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote delivered as a young state senator, to “Amazing Grace,” the 2015 presidential eulogy delivered after the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

“The president’s legacy is assessed over the years, and even after decades, there’s fallout,” Charles Poe, senior vice president at the Smithsonian Channel, said at a screening here Feb. 8.

“And of course they don’t really control that legacy. In fact, presidents don’t always get what they want, which the new guy hasn’t quite figured out, it seems. But what presidents can control completely is how they use what Teddy Roosevelt called the bully pulpit,” Poe said.

“And like Teddy Roosevelt, Barack Obama was a president who had a gift for writing and for connecting with people. In a Democracy, words have great power. So while we may not be sure yet how Barack Obama will be viewed by history, we do now have his full final record in over 3,500 speeches he left behind, and it’s not too soon to say some of President Obama’s words will be remembered.”

The network kicked off a 13-city tour Feb. 7 at a jam-packed event at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Obama’s hometown was the second stop. Each event included a panel discussion featuring folks from throughout Obama’s career.

“Selma is my favorite speech, because I was at Selma with him the first time he went there as a presidential candidate,” said Michael Strautmanis, a former White House staffer and now vice president of civic engagement for the Barack Obama Foundation, a panelist at the event at Studio Xfinity.

“There was no long motorcade parting the way through that first time. We kind of stopped in our van about a half a block from where the speech was, and had to fight through the crowd to get there,” said Strautmanis. “It was a very profound moment for me to be there with him when he was attempting to take on that mantle. So at the second Selma speech, I was pretty overwhelmed, seeing him come over with all of the pageantry of being the president of the United States, driving over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.”

City and state elected officials and many former Obama staffers attended the Chicago screening featuring two other panelists: Comcast executive Kaleshia Page, who worked for Obama in the U.S. Senate, and E. Claire Jerry of the National Museum of American History, who first met Obama on the senate campaign trail.

“I think it would be his 2004 speech, when he got to introduce himself and his stories of fellow residents of Chicago and Illinois,” Page said of her favorite Obama speech.

“I thought that was the fullest picture of who he is and what he wanted the world to be, and because of the images that he raised: ‘Out of many becomes one,'” Page said. “That was his theme in every speech that you heard after, and that was the first time he was able to introduce that concept to the American public.”

A best-selling author before the nation’s highest seat beckoned, Obama essentially became “writer-in-chief,” the film opines, taking viewers behind the scenes of speeches written with careful planning or under extraordinary pressure.

Much of his speeches were written by the president himself.

“If he had 48 hours in a day, I think he’d probably dispense of his speech-writing team and do it himself,” chief speechwriter Cody Keenan says in the film. Also featured are reflections from Chicagoans Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod.

Other Obama speeches highlighted include “A More Perfect Union,” his 2008 seminal speech on race relations in Philadelphia after incendiary comments by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; Obama’s 2008 DNC acceptance speech when he became the first African-American major party nominee; his 2012 presidential eulogy after the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in Newtown, CT; and his 2015 50th Anniversary commemoration of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches.

Jerry, curator in the Division of Political History at the National Museum of American History, identified three as favorites that will long be remembered.

“As a historian and political writer, I would say 2004, because it puts him on the national stage really for the first time,” said Jerry.

“Then the ‘More Perfect Union’ speech in response to the controversy over his pastor, because that was a moment at which the candidacy could have been lost. And I think that speech turned it around, in much the same way that John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech got him over the religious hurdle question,” Jerry said.

“And I think I would definitely include the speech at Selma, because of the reflection back on the historical arc, recognizing that his presence on that platform was a direct result of the history that was made 50 years ago that day.”