In one of the most jolting moments in modern political history, former President Barack Obama reclaimed his political pulpit with a stark warning that his successor is a grave and imminent threat to American democracy and racial justice.
Then, even more remarkably, President Donald Trump went on television and proved him right, putting a foreboding shadow over an election that he is already seeking to cast as illegitimate in the eyes of millions of Americans.
The campaign between Trump and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has mostly chugged along out of sight, obscured by a pandemic that has killed more than 150,000 Americans.
But the extraordinary interventions Thursday of two presidents, whose legacies will be forever entwined, suddenly underscored how this election, in the words of the quadrennial cliché, will actually be the most important one of our lifetimes.
Thursday brought a tableau of one president, liberated now that he is out of office, at the funeral of Rep. John Lewis, weaving the life of a national hero into a parable of America’s long struggle to reach its promise. The current commander in chief, mired in crisis and desperate to cling to power, reached not for inspiration but for lies and disinformation to obscure the truth.
Obama’s eulogy was not just his most public intervention in the 2020 campaign or his most passionate denunciation yet of a successor whose highest priority is eradicating Obama’s achievements at home and abroad.
The speech, from the church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, also represented Obama’s most raw, explicit and unrestrained unburdening about race on a prominent public stage of his entire political career.
In his 2008 campaign, he powerfully spoke about racial prejudice while seeking to heal national wounds — and save his campaign when pressed about his association with the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And he shared an intimate part of his own experiences and spiritual self in explaining to the country why Black Americans were upset at the acquittal in the shooting of Trayvon Martin and in breaking into “Amazing Grace” while eulogizing parishioners at a Charleston, South Carolina, church hit by a mass shooting in 2015.