Matt Drudge has the full text of Barack Obama’s speech on the Rev. Wright affair. As is typical with an Obama speech, it has some excellent rhetoric:
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
Rhetorically, Obama is putting himself firmly in the American story, despite his multicultural background. It’s an effective technique, and it’s one that Obama has used and will continue to use to reach out to the various groups that make up his coalition.
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.
But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.
As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.
Sounds like a disavowal, right? Except that it isn’t:
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.
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
Rhetorically, this is brilliant stuff. But like everything else that Obama says, once one gets past the wonderful words, the message itself is largely meaningless. Sen. Obama admits that Rev. Wright is a racist with a deeply disturbing view of America. Yet he won’t back down from him (any more than he already has). On one hand, he thinks that this country needs to have a conversation about race—on the other, he is siding with people who preach a gospel of racial division.
Sen. Obama just can’t have it both ways.
Finally, Obama ends with the sort of populist flourish that could have come from any of John Edwards’ speeches. He argues that Rev. Wright is wrong for seeing all the bad in America, and then he ends his speech by arguing that despite all the progress we’ve made, America is still in the doldrums. The final story about “Ashley” the campaign volunteer is the sort of overwrought and blatantly emotional story we’ve heard countless times before—and almost all these stories turn out to be something other than what is presented.
I will give the Senator this: this is a very well-crafted speech. Sen. Obama is a gifted wordsmith, and it seems like his words are more or less his own. The problem is that there’s no substance to his messages. To borrow from Cicero, he’s full of oratio, but he’s lacking in the ratio. He can generate much emotion, but he lacks in logic.
I don’t think this speech will ultimately help him. He is trying to stake a brave political ground, but in the end his message ends up being schizophrenic. He admits he disagreed with Wright, but not once did he think that he should stand up for his own country. If Barack Obama cannot defend his own country from his own pastor, how can he expect us to believe he’ll defend this nation abroad? When the President of Iran calls the United States “the Great Satan” will Obama be as passive as he was when Rev. Wright accused the US of creating AIDS? If our allies denigrate this nation, will Obama have the courage to defend us? Or will he go along with the crowd as he did at Trinity?
The damage to Obama has been done. He isn’t helping himself by condemning Rev. Wright, but only so far. He had this opportunity to have his Sister Souljah moment, and he failed to do so. He had an opportunity to clearly stand up for his country, and he failed to do so. The reality is that whatever Sen. Obama does now is too late: his time to take a stand was when Rev. Wright was making those statements. He could have stood up and defended his country against the kind of attacks that Rev. Wright was launching. Yet when Rev. Wright said that America deserved attack, that we created AIDS, that we should say “God damn America” instead of “God bless America,” Barack Obama sat passively by and let those assertions go unchallenged. That says enough about the character of the man.
His speech may be filled with lofty rhetoric, but it is far too late to make the difference. The American people have begun to see a new Barack Obama—not the charismatic reformer, but the man who sat by while his country was slandered and did nothing. A man who can’t stand by his country against someone like Rev. Wright cannot be expected to stand by his country against far more pernicious attacks. The damage has been done, and while Obama’s efforts at damage control are formidable, he can’t undo his own past.