Senator Barack Obama’s response to his pastor’s anti-Americanism is mealy-mouthed and disingenuous. It is impossible to believe Obama’s claim he was unaware of this dimension of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s preaching. Actually, if handled more shrewdly – and honestly – both the Reverend Wright’s venom and Michelle Obama’s unpatriotic comments could highlight one of Obama’s great gifts to America. Obama has tasted the bitterness of black life, but emerged with a song in his heart, and a deep, constructive patriotism. His initial failures to respond nimbly and honestly to the complaints about his demagogic pastor suggests he may be afflicted with advancing political sclerosis – the paralysis that hits successful candidates, especially insurgents, as they get ever cagier and more cowardly, forgetting the bold message that first fueled their success.
Barack Obama’s reverend – and mentor – Jeremiah Wright is a spell-binder. The video clips of Wright’s preaching capture a demagogue working his audience masterfully. Someone who continually calls America, “the U.S. of KKK-A,” someone who bombastically, but lyrically, repeats that he would not say “God Bless America,” but “God Damn America,” someone who chose the Sunday after 9/11 to condemn American foreign policy, is not a casual America-basher. Clearly, his ministry has played to African-American anger, demonizing whites, and blasting America as an oppressor at home and abroad. Consider his now-infamous Sunday sermon on September 16, 2001, as the fires at the Pentagon and at Ground Zero still smoldered. “We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye,” Wright shouted. “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens” – he exclaimed triumphantly, channeling the black radical Malcolm X -- “are coming home to roost.”
Consider Barack Obama's mild reaction to these ugly declarations. Once he needed to distance himself from the pastor who officiated at his wedding and baptized both his children, Obama compared his spiritual leader for nearly two decades to a crotchety old uncle. Obama also tried suggesting that regarding 9/11, Wright was simply being"provocative" - which is not the role of a man of the cloth entering a house of mourning. Most recently, as the appalling video clips spread, Obama released an eight paragraph response on the Huffington Post Blog repudiating Wright's remarks and is preparing a major speech on race today (Tuesday, March 18).
Alas, Obama’s carefully parsed statement was downright Clintonesque. “The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation. When these statements first came to my attention, it was at the beginning of my presidential campaign. I made it clear at the time that I strongly condemned his comments.” Let us take the good Senator at his word, and assume we will not soon be watching videos or still photographs date stamped “9/16/2001” showing Obama sitting in the church, or, even worse, videos of Obama clapping and laughing to one of Wright’s I-hate-America riffs. Still, only denying what occurred as he sat in the pews, lays a thicket of facts that gives the appearance of specificity while issuing a smokescreen of denial. Obama is smart. He knows that fair-minded Americans are wondering why he did not condemn the Reverend’s remarks when first uttered, or ever walk out on one of these harsh sermons – which the Reverend and the church were so proud of, they peddled on videotape. Moreover, did Obama ever argue with his “old uncle” as many of us do with older relatives or preachers who say something offensive? Obama’s lawyerly statement makes one wonder, did anyone mention Wright’s hateful analysis of 9/11 to Barack Obama, at the time an Illinois state senator? Or was this tirade so typical of Wright’s worldview that it did not generate much attention? Either scenario is damning – and suggests Obama failed when he waited until now to denounce these views.
It is easy to see the simplistic equation attack ads will make: Wright’s wrongheaded views plus Michelle Obama’s recent exclamation that for the first time in her life she was proud of her country equal proof that Barack Obama is no patriot, and not presidential material. The truth, however, is more complicated, and disturbing.
The Reverend Wright thrived at Trinity Church not despite these views but partially because of these views. The African-Americans who have flocked to hear Reverend Wright’s sermons – and have “Amened” his denunciations of America -- reflect the fury many African-Americans feel. Michelle Obama’s comments show that even many blacks who “made it” to the Ivy League, still feel disenfranchised – and bitter. This was the topic of a Princeton sociology senior thesis from 1985, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community” written by Michelle Robinson – who married a fellow Harvard lawyer named Barack Obama seven years later.
Since the 1960s, such black anger at America has not impeded advancement in the American meritocracy. America-bashing among those who most benefit from America’s bounty has become quite trendy. The white liberal elite circles in which the Obamas travel would echo Michelle Obama’s comments about not feeling proud of their country – even if some would find Reverend Wright’s venom unnerving.
This background is what makes Barack Obama's rhetoric and message so extraordinary. His 2004 convention speech marked the national debut of a fresh voice who refused to indulge in African-American anger toward America and rejected Ivy League cynicism. He promised to cross the racial divide, blur the red-blue divide, heal the anger, end the cynicism. In that spirit, when reporters asked him about Reverend Wright, Obama should have said,"Yes, I've lived with that anger, I've confronted that anger, I've overcome that anger." And wouldn't it have been great, if Obama could also have said - honestly, before any of these video clips spread -"and I want you to know that seven years ago, with no thoughts of running for President, I confronted my pastor, saying he needed to teach about love not hate, about hope not recriminations."
Obama’s political rise has been launched on the wings of Americans’ hopes that the healers will defeat the haters. His continued political progress would be more assured if he could point to actions backing up this rhetoric, to strong stands he has taken against divisive demagogues. Barack Obama is not too young to have had the opportunity to prove whether he stands by his statements. Americans have the right to ask what he has done when confronted with the world’s Jeremiah Wrights and Louis Farrakhans – and to be disappointed if only now, under the gun politically, is he pretending to have the backbone he needed in the past – and will certainly need if he wins the election.