After being in the room with the boys during Senator Jesse Helms campaign in 1990, when the much ballyhooed (or infamous) ‘white hands’ ad was written, I’ve been telling myself, ‘Don’t you touch Reverend Jeremiah Wright with a ten foot pole.’ But, anyway, here goes.
For several months I’ve been saying there’ll only be one real issue this fall. The war. But, now, I suspect Rev. Wright’s single-handedly changed the election. If Senator Obama is the Democratic nominee there’ll be two issues. The war. And race.
Politically, Senator Obama has carefully run as a mainstream Democrat. Yes, he’s liberal. But that’s okay if you’re a Democrat running for President. At a time when President Bush’s popularity is low it’s better than just okay. It’s credible. And viable. This year a liberal could win.
But Rev. Wright is nowhere near the mainstream. And Republicans are pointing to the videos of Rev. Wright saying American policies in Palestine caused 9/11 and AIDS is a government plot to kill black people and saying: Look at this. Wright’s way beyond liberal. And Obama may be too.
This puts a bit of tarnish on Obama’s ideological image.
Even worse for Obama, culturally, Wright has changed the role of race in Obama’s campaign.
Here again, Obama has remained carefully in the mainstream. He’s articulate. Reasonable. Graceful. He’s Sidney Portier. Not some 60’s radical and certainly not Lewis Farrakhan.
But Rev. Wright’s videos put Senator Obama in the middle of a piece of African-American culture that doesn’t look mainstream at all. And the side-effect is simple: The racial drumbeat around Obama’s campaign has raised an octave. And despite all the liberal swooning about Obama’s speech in Philadelphia, he hasn’t dealt with it very well.
He tried, at first, by saying: I don’t agree with Rev. Wright.
But then he added: But I understand “the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, bitterness and biases of the black experience in America” and because I understand the bitterness that caused Wright’s statements, even though I disagree, I “can no more disown him than I can the black community.”
And that ‘but,’ politically, is going to be a killer.
I think most people can understand why, say, a Tuskegee airman who was told 1941 or ’42 he wasn’t fit to fly fighter planes could feel bitterness. But, the point is, he had already, unequivocally, demonstrated his love of country and patriotism by just volunteering to fly those planes. He may be, justifiably, angry but no one doubts his patriotism. And that’s what’s missing in the videos of Rev. Wright – one tangible, real, and unequivocal proof of a similar love of country.
And Obama in his much heralded speech didn’t give voters much help. He told them why Wright is bitter. But examples of Wright’s patriotism were nowhere to be seen. Subsequently, Obama’s critics cut him no slack at all. They said his talk about racial healing was no more than a political smoke screen – that he was dancing a two-step, disagreeing with Wright in one breath but defending him in the next.
Then, after his speech, Obama slipped again. When he landed in Fayetteville that afternoon the first words out of his mouth were, ‘We have to stop the war in Iraq.’ He said, in effect, ‘I talked about this enough. Let’s move on.’
Now that may buy him a few months relief in the Democratic primaries. But, it won’t last. And it won’t elect him President.
Senator Obama faces a moment of truth. Race has stepped out of the wings and onto the stage of this campaign. Wright isn’t going away. This debate isn’t going away. It’s just beginning. And Obama has to win it. He says Rev. Wright’s extremism is the result of is racial bitterness. He’s got til November to convince people he’s right. But, first, I suspect, if he can, he has to show people there’s more to Rev. Wright than just being extreme and bitter.
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