Correspondents kept asking where I was:
- Anonymous said…
OK, OK, you caught me. I went to New Orleans on Tuesday for a relative’s 88th birthday party. Most of my family lives there. My father left there with a brother to go to Galveston; he stayed, the brother returned, the birthday boy is the brother’s son. I know, it was a terribly selfish thing to do. Then on Wednesday I got bumped from my flight, there wasn’t another available seat on a flight to Houston until Friday, and so I rented a car, after having to wait a couple of hours for one to become available, and drove back. Normally, that would have been a very stressful experience, but 20 months of reading bloggers’ comments has toughened me up. So I didn’t get to see or hear the Obama speech live.
Now that I have caught up, my sense is that it reinforced the views on both sides. His adoring followers see it as a landmark in race relations. Skeptics, a group to which I now belong, find it prosaic. I have two questions for readers who believe otherwise:
1. What did he say that we did not already know?
2. What did it accomplish?
Obama began by referring to the Constitution’s promise of “a more perfect union” and its unfinished nature, “stained” as it was “by this nation’s original sin of slavery….” Then he talked about his personal history, “a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts: that out of many, we are one. Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity. Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans.”
I agree that the American people were hungry for Obama’s message of unity. But I disagree that there was a temptation to view his candidacy through a purely racial lens. If anything, the opposite was true: Americans gave him a free pass on race. They saw him as transcending the race issue. The only person I can think of who suggested otherwise was Bill Clinton, who compared Obama’s victory in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson’s in 1988. The national media criticized Clinton, as they should have. Everybody gave Obama the benefit of the doubt.
Then Obama turned to the question at hand, his relationship with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright:
“…[W]e’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike. I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed. But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.
“As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.”
If I had been writing this speech, I would not have used the line, “I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy.”
This was not the moment for incorporation by reference. It looked like he was ducking it, perhaps because he was worried about offending his core constituency. I would have argued, You need to say it again. But the truth is, I don’t think there were any magic words that could undo the damage. None of us can know what is in another man’s heart, but I believe that Barack Obama, a man who passed up a Wall Street job to practice civil rights law, a man who feels strongly about injustice, agreed with what Jeremiah Wright said. He recognized it as hyperbole. As the saying goes, You had to be there. Jeremiah Wright didn’t become a famous and successful preacher by failing to understand what his congregation wanted to hear. Aside from watching gospel singing on TV, white America, and I include myself, has little understanding of the black religious experience.
The problem was not Jeremiah Wright. It was Barack Obama. Like so many politicians, he wanted it both ways. He wanted to keep his relationship with the church and with his pastor, and he wanted to be president, and he didn’t see that he couldn’t have both. That is a case of poor political instincts. The speech only made things worse. Why make a speech that says what you are NOT going to do. He set up a straw man and then knocked it down. “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.” No one expected him to disown Jeremiah Wright. What they expected, I think, was for Obama to say that he had made a mistake by remaining in the church while he was a United States Senator and presidential candidate and to rectify that mistake by resigning. Instead, he tried to argue that Wright was really a terrific person:
“The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.”
This had no place in the speech. So Wright was a Marine. So what? That doesn’t excuse the rhetoric; it makes it worse. So he studied and lectured at some of the finest universities in the country. So what? It’s not relevant. Does it somehow diminish the force of Wright’s words that he gave a speech at Harvard? Does this give him a King’s X? To me, the more the speech went on, the worse it got, and the deeper the hole that Obama dug for himself. A talk that should have been contained to Reverend Wright’s remarks broadened into a talk about race:
“[R]ace is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality. The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.
“Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.”
At this point, Obama was completely off message. He had become a phenomenon by ignoring the race issue — the phase of the campaign in which, as Obama himself said in the speech, he was criticized by blacks for not being black enough. By ignoring the race issue, he was able to transcend it. And now he is saying that we can’t ignore it. Whatever happened to the first rule of holes, which is that when you’re in one, quit digging?
So what does he do? He plays the white guilt card. First he says, We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. And then he does precisely what he said he did not need to do: But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. There is no one in America who does not know this. The question is not whether generations of black Americans suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery. The question is whether America is going to look forward or look back.
One of the basic rules of politics is that it’s never a good idea to try explain a mistake. If you make an error, don’t dwell on it. Don’t try to persuade the public they are wrong. Apologize and move on. I don’t understand why Obama couldn’t do this. Politicians are supposed to be adroit at figuring out what the public WANTS to hear. And, for a long time, Obama did this. He spoke of unity and common purpose. It was a great message, the right message. The crisis arose because his actions, of belonging to a church whose minister preached division and hate, conflicted with his words. The solution was to end the conflict by resigning from the church and confessing error.
“Today, with great sadness, I have tendered my resignation from Trinity United Church of Christ. I do so because I realize that my continuing presence in the congregation may be seen by some as indicating my agreement with the preaching of its former minister, Jeremiah Wright. I emphatically disagree with and abhor his view of the American government of which I am a part and which I know to be different from how he has characterized it. I will miss being a part of this community that has meant so much to me and my family for the past twenty years, but I cannot, in good conscience, serve my church and serve my country. I must choose my country, the greatest country on earth.”
* * * * *
I do want to express some second thoughts of my own. I wrote on Sunday, in “Remembrance of Things Pastor,” that I thought Obama was finished, that I expect him to lose Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky by wide margins (North Carolina and Oregon will be friendlier), and I expect him to start dropping in the polls as white voters desert him. Two polls provide evidence of major damage. A Gallup tracking poll (3/17-3/19, 1219 voters) has him trailing Clinton by 5 points for the Democratic nomination after the two had been statistically dead even for several weeks. But Rasmussen (900 likely voters) still has Obama in front by 3 points. If Obama falls apart, Clinton could run the table, but the more likely scenario is that the superdelegates will decide the nomination. If that is the case, I believe that they will stick with Obama.
The superdelegates don’t care that much about who is president, but, since most of them are elected officials, they do care about the downballot races, and they know that even a damaged Obama will bring out more voters than Clinton will. The Obama faithful will not necessarily vote for Clinton, but Clinton voters will vote for Obama (Hispanics excepted). And, as poorly as Obama has handled the last three weeks of the campaign, we have to remember that John McCain is not exactly Ronald Reagan. He has to defend a mismanaged war, a failing economy, and an unpopular president, and it is not clear at this point that he is physically or mentally up to a campaign. The McCain of 2000 would be a shoo-in for election; the McCain of 2008 may not be. So I was premature to write off Obama, but he will never regain the stature and momentum he had before the Texas primary.