March 18, 2008
Obama's Wright Stuff (III)
Posted by: Chris
Barack Obama's speech today in Philadelphia on the race-related controversy raised his pastor's remarks was, in the grand scheme of things, both brilliant and uplifting. He spoke about the racial anxieties of not just black Americans but whites and Latinos as well, and he recognized in a very rare way in politics that real grievances run in all directions.
Here's a video of the speech, in case you missed it:
In some ways the furor over the incendiary sermons by Rev. Jeremiah Wright played right to Obama's strengths -- a controversy he could address with a powerful speech, expertly delivered. Certainly anyone with an open mind who heard Obama speak so forcefully about his love for country and faith will accept that no part of Obama agrees with his pastor's outrageous statements.
For the immediate future, however, Obama did not do all that he could have to relieve legitimate doubts raised by the controversy. He has certainly used all the right words to condemn Reverend Wright's race-baiting and anti-Americanism in a way that will satisfy almost everyone. This primary season is already too consumed with Hillary's game of rejecting vs denouncing, etc., and it's downright ridiculous to see conservative pundits joining in now, since they generally abhor such silly semantics when practiced by the P.C. left.
Still, Obama would have dealt with his political problems more effectively if he responded to the utterances with specificity. He mentioned several in passing, including Wright's attempt to cast Israel as solely responsible for Middle East violence. But it would be reassuring, for example, to hear Obama directly refute Wright's exploitation of the urban myth that the U.S. government somehow infected African Americans with AIDS. That sort of ludicrous paranoia doesn't just sow distrust toward the government and white people, but is at a more fundamental level an attempt to deny the very existence of black gay and bisexual men. (President Ahmadinejad, anyone?)
But as a journalist I know that the key to settling a controversy is to give satisfactory answers to the lingering questions, the way Obama tried to with his three hours of meeting with Chicago journalists over the Mike Rezco matter. Yet on Wright, at least today, Obama may have succeeded in raising as many "nagging questions," as he called them, as he did settling others.
When it comes to specifics, Obama said:
Did I know [Reverend Wright] 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.
It was a mistake to be so stingy with details, when the media will not let up until he is more forthcoming. What type of controversial statements did Obama here? On what topics? How frequently? Did he hear about other controversial statements from other parishioners? On what topics? How frequently? Did he ever raise with Wright directly his objections to any of these remarks? Did he and Michelle Obama consider leaving the congregation? You get the idea.
At the same time I recognize the political reality that Obama needs to answer these additional questions, I would also like to channel Hillary Clinton just long enough to complain that this whole line of questioning is being unfairly applied in practice.
As I've noted before, there is a real double standard in how the story has been covered. The second place candidate in the just-concluded Republican primaries was not just candidate with a pastor but a pastor himself -- former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. And yet Huckabee has refused help to release tapes or written copies of his own sermons. And what about Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith is so poorly understood -- were we entitled to hear tapes of all the sermons from his church?
The videotapes of Wright's sermons made this an irresistible controversy, but the media should at the very least ask conservatives using Wright to tar Obama whether the sermons by Huckabee and by Romney's pastor are similarly fair game.
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