The real-time appearance of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in the national television spotlight has turned our politics upside down. No one can now dismiss his scabrous inventions as an unrepresentative sound bite. He not just defended but gloried in amplifying some of them, lapping up the applause.
The audacity of hype! Promoting his upcoming book, he holds himself out as the spokesman for millions of African-American churchgoers, which he is certainly not. He renews his charge that the September 11 murders were retribution for America's "terrorism" on other people, defends Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as one of the most important voices of the 20th and 21st centuries, reiterates his belief that the government created aids as a "genocide" on African-Americans, compares U.S. marines to the Roman soldiers who killed Jesus and suggests that America has acted like al Qaeda under a different flag, and refuses to apologize for his invocation "God damn America!"
Equally of concern is his depiction of Barack Obama as someone who was insincere in distancing himself. "Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability...based on polls," he asserts, casting Obama as a politician—and one whose public statements last March are not to be trusted.
Senator Obama's first-day reaction was muted. Only on the second day did he vent. He said he had to wait 24 hours since he "hadn't seen it," notwithstanding that the time bomb that was the Reverend Wright had deformed his campaign narrative. Obama had moved millions by presenting himself as the appealing unifier and the candidate who transcends race, but the result of the outbursts by the man he called his spiritual adviser and guide is that the country is seized with the one issue of race on the very terms of black anger against the white world—just what Obama set out to avoid. The controversy has, to some extent, turned Obama from the candidate who is black into a black candidate.
Second-guessing. The political firestorm inescapably raises questions again about Obama's judgment: How naive could he be to fail to recognize the risks of such an association? One can understand how useful the pastor was in immersing the politically ambitious Harvard Law graduate in Chicago's South Side (no doubt the source now of Wright's resentment). Obama acquired "street cred." But how over 20 years could he fail to appreciate the pastor for the man he so obviously is? How could Obama borrow the title of his book The Audacity of Hope from the first sermon of Wright's that he heard decades ago, in which the pastor attacked an environment "where white folks' greed runs a world in need, apartheid in one hemisphere, apathy in another"?
Senator Obama had to know, on some level, that his association was problematic, for he rescinded an invitation to have Wright speak at his campaign launch in 2007. Now we learn, according to Wright, that he and Obama's family prayed in the basement of the old Illinois State Capitol before Obama went out to speak. It stretches Obama's credibility to assert that only now has he learned of the views of the man he trusted as pastor to his children.
In rejecting Wright, Obama says the relationship has now "changed." In his March speech on race, he said he could no more disown Wright than he could disown the black community. The "change" in the relationship cannot mean he has now disowned the black community—parts of which have disowned Wright. We are left to assume he is no longer the spiritual adviser of whom Obama once said, "He is much more of a sounding board for me to make sure that I am speaking as truthfully about what I believe as it is possible and that I am not losing myself in some of the hype and hoopla and stress that's involved in national politics."
The sad outcome of all of this is that it undermines the strong support that Obama gained from so many voters. Too many people are now asking how he could not have been outraged much earlier. By escalating the racial element of identity politics, the pastor has undercut one of the major rationales of Obama's campaign, to wit, that it could and would be about healing. How is he going to be a unifier when his spiritual adviser is on TV, castigating America and scaring a lot of people?
Obama remains vulnerable for having sat for decades in the pews of a church that did good work but was racked with divisive racial rhetoric. As Juan Williams, a respected commentator on issues of race, put it, "What would Jesus do? There is no question he would have left that church."
The failure to extract himself early and decisively enough is not to question Senator Obama's commitment to transcending old racial animosities. But it unhappily sets back the progress his campaign has made. Wright deserves our condemnation for taking us backward on this difficult issue at what could have been such a promising time.