Sen. Barack Obama’s Tuesday speech, aimed at ending the controversy surrounding his relationship to his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, fell well short of that goal. In fact, Obama raised more questions than he answered.
The speech — lasting longer than thirty minutes — showed Obama in a different setting. Instead of the upbeat, charismatic Obama chanting “change”, in this speech the candidate was at times uncomfortable, defensive and pandering.
At issue were the sermons Wright had delivered over the years in which he had condemned America and made several statements which placed him at the radical fringes of American politics. But all Obama could do was justify and urge voters to move past the issue.
“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…,” Obama said.
But if Obama strongly disagreed with those views in twenty years at that church, how did he express himself? Question one for Mr. Obama: If you strongly disagreed, how, when and where did you express it?
Sen. Obama pointed to those who ask — reasonably — why didn’t he do what millions of others do every year: join another church? Obama said that if all he knew of Wright were “the snippets of those sermons” containing anti-white statements, he would be appalled. He then went on to defend Wright’s character — praising him as a mentor, spiritual advisor, former U.S. Marine and helper of the poor — indicating those aspects of Wright were, to Obama, more important than the incendiary rhetoric. By which, we can only infer, that Mr. Obama believes this rhetoric is acceptable from someone with Mr. Wright’s other supposed achievements.
A fundamental problem with Obama’s speech is that he apparently believes that Wright — even at his worst — speaks for the black community and is typical of those who preach in black churches.
Obama said, “Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety — the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.”
Question two for Sen. Obama: Do you believe that Wright is typical of black preachers all across the nation? Those of us outside the black community lack any deep knowledge of black churches. The only black minister we are very familiar with was Martin Luther King, Jr. He never damned America.
Which leads to Question three for Sen. Obama: Do you believe that Mr. Wright should apologize for his damning of our nation?
Obama said of Wright, “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community…” From which we are compelled to derive Question four: Does Sen. Obama believe that members of the black community who agree with Wright vastly outnumber those who do not?
“Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough,” Obama said, adding that “never once in my conversations with [Wright] have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms.” Is that consistent with the admission that Obama knew of Wright’s outrageous comments? It seems impossible that one can coexist with the other.
Why did Obama remain a member of a church so opposite the unifying political rhetoric he proclaims daily?
Obama said “Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable but I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.”
Does Obama believe Ferraro’s one comment — that Obama wouldn’t be in his position if he were a white man — is equal in kind or in quality — to the numerous, offensive remarks made by Wright? That would say a lot about his judgment. He defended Wright’s comments by way of “justified anger” from older blacks in America who endured the atrocities of segregation.
“That anger may not get expressed in public in front of white co-workers or white friends,” said Obama. “But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table…And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews.
“The fact that so many people are surprised to hear [it]…simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning,” he said.
Its clear Obama believes he can’t “change” churches without offending the rest of the black community. If he can’t confront his own pastor, friend and mentor about these issues, how will he address the entire nation?
He quoted William Faulkner, saying, “’The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” The usual mantra of “change” was abandoned for a purposeless focus — the same he usually harps on “the war that shouldn’t have been started in Iraq.” Obama wants to “transcend race” in one remark but then invites the division back in the next.
“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,” he said.
Here, he turns it around:
“…But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races…working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds.
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed.”
The eloquent statements will not undo the damage 20 years of dedication to a bigoted man, who Obama referred to as a spiritual leader who is “like family” and a “part of me.”
Obama said “race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” but he managed to “ignore” it in his church for two decades. Now he’s trying to avoid a fatal head on collision.
He compared Wright’s charge that “rich white people” control the country with his own white Grandmother expressing fear of black men on the street. Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker said his grandmother’s fear may have been the most telling line of the entire speech.
“He said he cringed, but I’m betting he did more than that. Those remarks had to cut deep…His grandmother — his surrogate mother at that point — rejected the black man he was becoming. The anger Obama heard in Rev. Wright’s church may not have felt so alien after all.”
But he did not own up to the same anger and instead persuaded voters to move on. “We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words,” he said.
The questions must be answered “this time” and shouldn’t be off the table until Obama answers the real questions of character and judgment that plague him now.
And there is one last question that overrides all of Sen. Obama’s speech: is he — was he — sincere in his criticisms of Wright’s sermons? In March 2007, the New York Times reported Obama had “disinvited” Wright to the announcement of his presidential campaign. According to that story, Obama told Wright, “You can get kind of rough in the sermons, so what we’ve decided is that it’s best for you not to be out there in public.”
Mr. Obama would have us believe that Mr. Wright is still someone he loves and trusts, someone whose church he would belong to even if Wright had not retired from the pulpit. Which raises the ultimate question: how sincere is Mr. Obama’s condemnation of Mr. Wright when, like so many other things about Mr. Obama, it is only words and not action?