There have been a number of watershed events in American history, which irrevocably altered the course of this nation forever. We have just seen one such event in the form of a scandal surrounding Barack Obama’s former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. The recent comments by Senator Hillary Clinton prove that this issue continues to reverberate.
By now, all are familiar with Wright’s comments; suffice to say, the airwaves, Internet and multimedia have been filled for over two weeks with his words and debates over whether they are racist. Such arguments have now been offered by individuals from both sides, yet few point out that the comments themselves have NEVER been (and should not be) the real issue, at least where Obama is concerned.
There are two points to be made. The first is the swift and inevitable impact the Reverend’s comments have had on Obama’s campaign. It was not Wright’s comments, but rather Obama’s response to them that says the most about his campaign. Secondly, despite the seemingly endless discussion on the issue, Wright seems to have slipped through the cracks of the chasm he created.
To explain this first point, it is important to note why the Reverend’s relationship with Obama is significant. The U.S. is the world’s most powerful country, and the leader of this country arguably holds the most important job on the planet. It is only fitting that this post be filled by someone who has been vetted thoroughly, battle-tested and proved him/herself ready to take on the challenges inherent to the task. Thus, when on March 18, we saw Obama’s response to Wright on national television, we caught a glimpse of his responses to adversity and how he would likely deal with crises as president.
No one could ever truthfully claim Obama to be a poor orator, and this address was no exception, though not nearly on par with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (as has been suggested). He skillfully condemned the remarks made by Wright while simultaneously explaining why he will not disown his former reverend.
However, unlike his other speeches, this one actually brought attention to a demonstrable and perhaps irreparable flaw in Obama’s candidacy. This was not because he failed to address the issues he set out to ameliorate, but because he did in such a way as to cast serious doubt on his ability to lead this country in an era of unprecedented obstacles. It was what he said, not how he said it.
The defense he provided, if condensed, is essentially that of the Golden Rule. Rather than condemn the man, he instead seeks to understand the misguided reasoning that gave rise to these comments, and thus solve the problems at their source. It is a way of life that is as praiseworthy and laudable as it is hopelessly na?ve for someone running for president.
The distinction to be made is between idealism and naivety. Idealism gave rise to Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, naivety to Jimmy Carter and the current administration.
While idealism is a combination of dreams and confidence tempered by experience, naivety lacks that final, critical element. It is that which Obama’s address brought to the fore. At what point does the need for reaction override the search for justification? When does his personal conviction trump expediency? And, most importantly, when does Obama’s loyalty to his country?the one his former pastor wished to the netherworld?become more important than his loyalty to his friends?
This, then, is the problem. For the most part, Wright’s comments were, at the risk of sounding flippant, somewhat hackneyed. Whether it be the HIV conspiracy or 9/11 comeuppance, Wright was by no means the first to perpetuate these “sermons,” and he will not be the last. Our Constitution guarantees the right of free speech, and Wright is not?and should not be ?denied that right, regardless of how ridiculous his assertions.
But the most pivotal and heinous point?that of “G*d d*mn America”?in the end calls into question Obama’s patriotism. This is not, of course, to insinuate that Obama shares Wright’s views, but the Senator’s mantra demonstrated that he puts loyalty to his pastor over loyalty to his country. A simple condemnation decries only complicity of motive, not improper prioritization.
Indeed, attempting to rationalize such comments shows a dangerous lack of political maturity on Obama’s part. At what point does he stop making excuses for others? If during an Obama presidency, Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were to issue another scathing rant against Israel or Kim Jong-Il were to threaten South Korea or Japan, would Obama condemn their comments then seek to find a rationalization for them? A more experienced leader would not have attempted to separate the man from his comments in an attempt to justify a personal conflict.
Furthermore, that the relationship between Obama and Wright has reportedly lasted some twenty years adds a more ominous dimension to the situation. Wright was more than a mere spiritual advisor; he married Obama and his wife and baptized their children. Thus, the odds are long that Obama never heard Wright make such comments, and Obama in his address did acknowledge hearing controversial political statements from Wright (though not the ones in question).
Nevertheless, if taken at face value, Obama’s statements suggest that 20 years of hearing controversial, political commentary with which he strongly disagreed, even combined with Wright’s latest offerings are not enough to disown the man. Certainly all would agree that loyalty is important, but just how far does Obama’s loyalty go before it becomes blind following? Would an explanation similar to Obama’s be sufficient to explain retaining, say, Alberto Gonzalez? Or perhaps Donald Rumsfeld?
This is entirely the kind of event needed during a presidential campaign to show how a candidate would react in actual practice?an occurrence sorely lacking in the last two presidential cycles. Ironically, this entire process has provided a litmus test of perhaps the only obstacle Obama faced?whether or not he is sufficiently experienced for the office.
Wright’s comments were just this kind of situation?a scenario that demanded immediate action. Yet, instead of unconditionally and unequivocally condemning both the comments and the man who made them, Obama tried to explain them, to rationalize them, and despite his protestations, to justify them. It is the sign of a decent man, a good man, but a na?ve man, and thus a man who is in the final analysis not yet presidential material.
The second point to be made is of greater importance, for it concerns the future of this country and not just a single election cycle. The comments of Wright have brought to the fore questions and issues that my generation was supposedly beyond. That is not to say that racism, sexism and anti-Semitism are dead; they are unfortunately issues that will likely always be present. However, statistics had shown this decade and the 18-25 generation in particular, to be the most tolerant and accepting in the nation’s history. Yet after watching people interact since the Wright story made national headlines, suddenly you would never know that.
The United States did not become the greatest country in the world by bowing in the face of evil, whatever that evil may be. Hate-mongers and bigots exist in all races, all religions, all creeds, all ethnicities and all political parties and want to see exactly what is occurring?strife they have caused. The truly sad part, the tragedy of the story, is that we as a people are letting it happen.
Rather than rising up as one people and telling Wright there is no place for his hate-filled speech in American culture, we are fracturing along the very lines we claimed to have sealed. And as long as we allow people like him to continue, the wounds they reopen will never really heal. Thus, if there is to be a racial divide as a result of this scandal, it will be our fault for allowing it to happen. We are better?we must be better?than what we have shown.