Campaign 2008, Politics

Obama’s Wright Speech

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.


The Beginning of the End?

Power Line takes a look at Barack Obama’s lame response to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright scandal. If Rev. Wright had made a few questionable comments, I doubt this scandal would go very far. However, we are talking about years of anti-American and racially divisive rhetoric. Obama’s half-hearted effort at denial is keeping this story alive, and even some on the left are starting to get nervous.

For all the talk about how gifted a politician Barack Obama is, he’s never had to face a major scandal like this. If he keeps handling the media so brusquely, he’s going to have a serious problem on his hands.

If the sheen comes off Obama, it’s quite possible he could lose the nomination. The superdelegates want to win, and if Obama keeps making mistakes like this, there superdelegates are going to start having visions of all the attack ads that 527 groups will be running all throughout the general election season. If Obama doesn’t get the nomination, his supporters are going to go nuts—which will divide the Democratic Party and likely lead to President McCain. At the same time, if Obama can’t handle this scandal, how can he handle the heat of the general election?

More and more this election is starting to look like 1968, and Democrats have every reason to be worried about what will happen in Denver.

Campaign 2008, Politics

Obama’s Guilt By Association

Barack Obama is going to have a lot to explain after it has been revealed that his pastor, Jeremiah Wright has engaged in some rather incindiary anti-American rhetoric:

Sen. Barack Obama’s pastor says blacks should not sing “God Bless America” but “God damn America.”

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor for the last 20 years at the Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s south side, has a long history of what even Obama’s campaign aides concede is “inflammatory rhetoric,” including the assertion that the United States brought on the 9/11 attacks with its own “terrorism.”

In a campaign appearance earlier this month, Sen. Obama said, “I don’t think my church is actually particularly controversial.” He said Rev. Wright “is like an old uncle who says things I don’t always agree with,” telling a Jewish group that everyone has someone like that in their family.

Rev. Wright married Obama and his wife Michelle, baptized their two daughters and is credited by Obama for the title of his book, “The Audacity of Hope.”

Sen. Obama is going to have to go a lot further than that. He’s going to have to disassociate himself with Wright and explain exactly why he never bothered to speak out against Wright’s rhetoric.

The answer to the latter, I suspect, is that Sen. Obama doesn’t necessarily disagree with Rev. Wright. His responses to this controversy have been rather specious—Obama’s campaign has said that “Sen. Obama does not think of the pastor of his church in political terms.” The problem with that statement is that Wright himself makes it clear that his sermons are political—and by their own content it’s blazingly obvious that they are designed to be political. Sen. Obama can’t claim ignorance and he can’t claim that he wasn’t paying attention to what Wright was saying all this time. Sen. Obama’s biography makes it obvious he’s had aspirations for higher office for some time now—when your pastor starts saying that the 9/11 attacks were examples of “chickens coming home to roost” would it not behoove a smart candidate to be on the record as denouncing those statements as soon as possible?

How big an issue this will become is unsure, and depends largely on how well the Obama campaign handles the issue—and given the Obama campaign’s past performance this could end up spiraling into a major scandal unless they start managing the press more adeptly.

What this incident exposes is that for all Sen. Obama’s rhetoric about racial and political healing, he comes from an atmosphere of liberal extremism and an atmosphere that is radically out of synch with the American mainstream. That may give him great appeal with the base of the Democratic Party, but it will be an albatross around his neck should he win the nomination.