Obama Takes The High RoadMarch 19, 2008
In my previous post, outlined my disappointment with Barack Obama’s response to the sudden controversy surrounding him and his campaign. The issue that had come to a head had to do with his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Obama did what would be expected of a competent leader: He addressed the issue head on. This address came in the form of a speech that was delivered today; a speech that prompted the largest blogburst I’ve ever seen on memeorandum’s main page: “A More Perfect Union”.
Predictably, most of those who were inclined to dislike the speech disliked it, and those inclined to like it, well, really liked it. For the Chamber, I’m going to comment on it not only out of a feeling of obligation as a member of the political web and (especially) as an Obama supporter, but because it’s almost as if Barack took my “open letter” to heart (of course I don’t think he or anyone in his campaign read it, but at least it appeared that others had the same concerns). Even better, he did it in a way that brutally honest, personal, mature, and elevated the entire discourse up a level by challenging the listener (or reader) to think about the underlying reasons why the speech had to be delivered in the first place.
As for how Obama addressed the concerns I had in my previous post, here’s what happened…
No one is going to believe that you’ve suddenly discovered that Rev. Wright says controversial things now that ABC has broad-casted clips of his sermons for all the world to see, so why give anyone the incentive to scour through church records, interview parishioners and keep the issue in the spotlight while the drooling minions that are hell-bent to take your campaign down try to catch you in a GOTCHA! moment?
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.
Of course, this is already being viewed as evidence (or, perhaps, an admission) that he lied when he went on the networks the other day to talk about this. I look at it as more of a clarification or correction, since he was fairly careful to parse his words in the sense that he alluded that he hadn’t heard Wright’s specific comments that were being replayed over and over again. Yes, he should have said this from the very beginning, but I think that this should be enough to keep the aforementioned minions at bay long enough for them to lose interest and move on to digging into the next accusation (like implying that Obama is a radical Buddhist, or something).
I also said:
You alluded to some of the good things the church has done for the community, but you had a hard time making the case for one important aspect: You. The fact that you have had a successful life and are closer than anyone in history to being America’s first black president reflects favorably upon the church, doesn’t it? I would think that a black church that can list among its long-term membership a state and U.S. Senator and the frontrunning candidate for the oval office would suggest that the church might have a positive influence on people, an influence that helped inspire you to answer the call to public service.
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
This comment achieves even more than what I was suggesting, as he both touched on the fact that one of the church’s own members went on to do so much while using it to make the point that he doesn’t subscribe to all of Wright’s rhetoric. He was obviously stressing the latter more than the former, but along with these remarks earlier in the speech…
But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. 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.
..he effectively delivered the message that, overall, Wright and the church have had a positive influence on his life and the community, even if he doesn’t like everything that his pastor says.
Or to address the accusation that Wright “hates America”, you could say, “I think Rev. Wright loves America like a parent loves their child, and sometimes he believes there’s reason to be angry”.
For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.
This is just one relevant portion, but overall Obama was successful in addressing that specific accusation (and it’s definitely out there) by painting a picture in an empathetic manner.
Overall, I am very impressed with what he’s done here. This was more than merely a strategic political maneuver to confront a controversy, insulate himself from his own previous comments, and an attempt to put this all behind him. Even on that superficial level, though, it was brilliant. But it went further than that. He took the opportunity to raise the bar on what political discourse means in this country. And, apparently, he wrote the speech himself, staying up until 2AM to craft a piece that was able to accomplish the task of clarifying his relationship with the church (without throwing Wright completely under the bus), offering a heartfelt and sincere dialogue on race relations, and challenging Americans to work to come together and move beyond our differences. I think even the detractors would have to find that pretty amazing. I’d call it presidential.