Weeks of brooding over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Michelle Obama eruptions have severely shaken the hope I expressed in January: "If Barack Obama can show he is tough enough and pragmatic enough to win the presidency and serve with distinction, it would be the best thing that could happen to America and the world."
What should we learn about Obama’s judgment and fortitude from the fact that he sat passively in the pews for 20 years and gave money and took his children while Wright, his friend and "spiritual adviser," spewed far-left, America-hating, white-bashing, conspiracy-theorizing, loony, "God damn America" vitriol from the pulpit?
This concern is not entirely dispelled by Obama’s shifting explanations, including his mostly admirable March 18 speech about Wright and the issue of race.
Also disturbing is the bleak picture of America painted by Obama’s closest adviser, his wife, Michelle, in highly newsworthy comments, most of which the media have chosen to ignore.
Her stunning February 18 statement that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country" did get some attention, but just two mentions buried in The Washington Post and three buried in the news columns of The New York Times. The news columns of both papers, and almost all others, have ignored Michelle Obama’s assertions that this country is "just downright mean" and "guided by fear"; that "our souls are broken"; and that most Americans’ lives have "gotten progressively worse since I was a little girl."
All this from a woman whose own life doesn’t seem so rough: She went from a working-class background to Princeton, Harvard Law School, and a $1.65 million mansion in Chicago. That’s the mansion that the Obamas bought with a little help from their friend Tony Rezko, now on trial on unrelated corruption charges, months after Obama’s 2004 election to the Senate. Meanwhile, Michelle’s salary at the University of Chicago hospitals soared from $122,000 to $317,000.
Many Democrats dismiss the Wright controversy as much ado about "bupkus," as one puts it. Many Republicans see clear proof of unfitness for high office in Obama’s choice of Wright as his spiritual adviser and his equivocations about why he condoned the reverend’s vicious rhetoric for so long.
These confident reactions strike me as resting on partisan double standards. All or almost all of the Democrats who shrug off Obama’s Wright connection would (and should) be apoplectic about any prominent Republican whose 20-year spiritual adviser was known for bashing black people as a group, casting them as villains in paranoid conspiracy theories, glorifying the Ku Klux Klan (as Wright has gloried Louis Farrakhan), and the like.
Indeed, prominent in the chorus of demands last April for the firing of radio host Don Imus, for using racial slurs that seem mild compared with Wright’s sermons, was the voice of Barack Obama himself: "There is nobody on my staff who would still be working for me if they made a comment like that about anybody of any ethnic group."
On the other hand, most of Obama’s Republican critics seem undisturbed by John McCain’s cynical pandering to far-right religious extremists whose rhetoric is so repugnant that McCain denounced some as "agents of intolerance" eight years ago, before deciding that he needed their support.
Aside from courting Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell — who portrayed the 9/11 attacks as divine retribution against abortionists, gays, feminists, and the ACLU (and later semi-apologized) — McCain has characterized as a "spiritual guide" an Ohio megachurch pastor named Rod Parsley, who has compared Planned Parenthood to the Nazis and called Islam a "false religion" that America must see "destroyed." McCain has also welcomed the support of pastor John Hagee of Texas, who has called the Catholic Church a "great whore" that conspired with Hitler "to exterminate the Jews"; called Hurricane Katrina "the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans" because of a planned "homosexual parade" and other "sin"; and advocated a U.S.-Israeli strike against Iran to help launch Armageddon.
To be sure, McCain’s bouts of cynical pandering are much less troublesome than Obama’s enthusiastic embrace for two decades of a minister who was preaching to thousands of black men, women, and children stuff such as: "The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color." And the 9/11 mass murders were "America’s chickens coming home to roost." And "racism is how this country … is still run." And America is "a Eurocentric wasteland of lily-white lies." And "white folks’ greed runs a world in need."
Nobody believes that Obama shares Wright’s extremist views. His March 18 speech won praise not only from liberals but also from some thoughtful conservatives. They include scholars Abigail Thernstrom and Charles Murray, Wall Street Journal columnist (and former Reagan speechwriter) Peggy Noonan, and law professor Douglas Kmiec, who has endorsed Obama over McCain.
Thernstrom stressed how bold it was for any liberal black politician to deplore as (in Obama’s words) "profoundly distorted" the view that "sees white racism as endemic." This assertion, she explained, "distances him from the entire civil-rights community, which conditions membership on the belief that white racism is endemic."
Similarly impressive were Obama’s statement that blacks need to face "our own complicity in our condition" and his empathy for "working- and middle-class white Americans [who] don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race" and who resent being tarred as prejudiced. Noonan called it "as honest a speech as one in his position could give within the limits imposed by politics."
All true. Far less admirable was Obama’s equating Jeremiah Wright’s hateful public preachings with the private expression by Obama’s own grandmother of "racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe" and with her "fear of black men who passed by her on the street" — a fear that, Obama neglected to mention, has also been expressed by Jesse Jackson. This was an appalling exercise in moral equivalence, aggravated by the crass ignobility of exposing to undeserved public scorn the woman who helped raise Obama.
Also unimpressive was Obama’s facile blaming of Americans’ problems on "the special interests in Washington," greedy corporations, rich people, and "discrimination." Is this tired old Democratic grievance-mongering the fresh new politics that Obama has promised?
And he still has not adequately explained why he didn’t walk away from Wright, or challenge his anti-American tirades, a long time ago. Yes, as Obama has said, Wright has redeeming qualities, including his programs for the needy, homeless, and sick. And yes, the minister’s fiery sound bites are a bit less stark — though still surpassingly ugly — when seen in full context.
But it also appears that Obama shares the unfortunate tendency of many liberals to see far-left extremists (and of many conservatives to see far-right extremists) as kindred spirits. And there may be some resonance between Wright’s angry vitriol and Michelle Obama’s bleak vision of America.
Most important, perhaps, Obama’s assertion that "I can no more disown [Wright] than I can disown the black community," together with his acknowledgment of "shocking ignorance" among many blacks, implies what other Wright apologists have said more directly: White-bashing, far-left rhetoric, and paranoid racial conspiracy theories are commonplace in many black churches and among many otherwise sensible black people.
Obama won’t disown these people, because that would be inconsistent with his lifelong quest to belong to the black community, movingly detailed in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father. And because he needs their votes.
All of this is understandable. But would the same Obama who lacked the fortitude to break with Jeremiah Wright be a good bet, if elected, to take on his party’s own special interests? To break, when circumstances warrant, with the across-the-board liberal orthodoxy he has long embraced? Curb entitlement spending? Temper excessive affirmative-action preferences? Tame the lawsuit lobby? Assign the teachers unions their share of the blame for what Obama calls "crumbling schools that are stealing the future"?
Could he get tough, when necessary, with fashionably leftist foreign dictators, highly politicized international institutions, and sanctimonious European America-bashers? Or would he instead heed such soothing platitudes as his wife’s February 14 assertion that "instead of protecting ourselves against terrorists," we should be "building diplomatic relationships"?
I have a hard time believing at this point that Obama is up to these tasks. I would love to see him prove my doubts wrong. And, of course, he does not have to be flawless to be the best candidate. He just has to show that his flaws are less crippling than the all-too-apparent shortcomings of Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain.