Published March 25, 2008
George Packer of The New Yorker, himself a fine writer, was deeply impressed (to say the least) with Barack Obama's speech on race. According to Packer, what we witnessed in Philadelphia a week ago was an “intimate lecture,” the “greatest speech on race by an American politician in many decades,” one that seemed to have been composed in “intense solitude.” It has the “personal drama, the encompassing structure, the moral and intellectual intricacy, of a great essay.” In the “high-mindedness and subtlety on glorious display in Philadelphia last week,” Obama paid “the electorate the supreme compliment of assuming that it, too, can appreciate complexity.” Obama's “character and candidacy offer a way out of the divisive identity politics that has, in part, cost the Democratic Party its majority status since the nineteen-sixties.”
But not all is well. Whatever ugly things said by the Clinton and Obama camps against one another, “far worse lies ahead for the eventual nominee.” Packer added this:
You can already hear the sound of Republican operatives disassembling Obama's speech and constructing a booby trap from its parts. Peter Wehner, a former Bush aide who has said nice things about Obama, is now comparing him to “Slick Willie” Clinton.
As Packer's comments relate to me, it's true; I have said nice things about Obama in the past, and I hope and trust Obama will give me more opportunities to praise him down the road. I have found him to be an impressive, intellectually formidable, and in many ways an appealing figure. From what I have heard about him from people who have known him over the years, he is an essentially decent man. He's clearly a gifted writer. And sections of the speech that dealt with race were in some respect insightful — though not nearly the masterpiece Packer believes.
At the same time, Obama's speech was troublesome for reasons Packer does not even acknowledge: When it comes to Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.'s bigoted and anti-American views, what did Obama hear and when did he hear it? These are perfectly legitimate, proper, and even urgent questions — and you can be sure that if we were dealing with right-wing hate speech and a GOP candidate, Packer and his magazine would be pressing very hard to find out the answers.
Here's what we know: In early March Obama said, “I don't think my church is actually particularly controversial.” What could be considered controversial was part of the Wright's “social gospel”; the specific stand of Wright's that Obama mentioned was divestment from South Africa “and some other issues like that.” After the tapes of Wright's sermons hit prime-time on TV and the Internet, Obama indicated that Wright's comments and the mindset from which they arose were more or less news to him (“I did not hear such incendiary language myself personally, either in conversations with him or when I was in the pew,” Obama told MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. “[Wright] always preached a social gospel and was sometimes controversial in the same way that many people who speak out on social issues are controversial.”). The man Obama knew, he assured us, was a former Marine who served his country, a biblical scholar, somebody who's spoken at theological schools all across the country and is widely regarded as an excellent preacher. “That's the man I know,” Obama said. “That's the person who was pastor of this church. I did not hear such incendiary language.”
But in his Philadelphia speech, Obama clearly wanted to make sure he had an escape hatch. Obama told us that Wright was an “occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy” and that Obama did hear Wright make remarks that “could be considered controversial” while he sat in church and with which Obama “strongly disagree[d].” But Obama never told us what those comments might be.
And so I wrote this:
[Obama's] story, which seemingly changes in every re-telling, is beginning to resemble nothing so much as Bill Clinton's evolving explanation about his draft notice. It was then that most of America was introduced to “Slick Willie.”
I don't believe Obama's character is as corrupt as Bill Clinton's (an admittedly low standard). In fact, I don't believe Obama is corrupt, period. But the shifting Obama version of events does bother me, and in my estimation it ought to bother Packer as well. This is not a hard call. It turns out that one of the most significant and influential figures in the life of Barack Obama, a candidate who promises that he alone among political figures can help us transcend race and divisions in America, is an anti-American bigot and a hate-spewing minister. Are those who raise questions and seek more answers about this somehow at fault?
And to assert that a “booby trap” is being constructed by Republicans isn't really quite right. The trap has been laid and set by Obama himself. He is the one who considers Wright like family; who drew close to Wright, probably in an effort to strengthen his credibility in Chicago's south side; and who, as best as we can tell, never confronted Wright on a single thing Wright has said.
In addition, when the New York Times reported last April that “Mr. Wright's assertions of widespread white racism and his scorching remarks about American government have drawn criticism, and prompted the senator to cancel [Wright's] delivery of the invocation when [Obama] formally announced his candidacy in February,” presumably Obama was aware, and somewhere along the line had been exposed to, Wright's worldviews. Why else would Obama cancel Wright's invocation? It's simply not plausible to think that Wright's views, which appear to be central to who he is, came as a surprise to Obama.
The Times story on Obama and Wright included this prescient comment by Trinity United's senior pastor:
“If Barack gets past the primary, he might have to publicly distance himself from me,” Mr. Wright said with a shrug. “I said it to Barack personally, and he said yeah, that might have to happen.”
And happen it did. Christopher Hitchens characterized this comment by Wright in his inimitable way:
Pause just for a moment, if only to admire the sheer calculating self-confidence of this. Sen. Obama has long known perfectly well, in other words, that he'd one day have to put some daylight between himself and a bigmouth Farrakhan fan. But he felt he needed his South Side Chicago “base” in the meantime. So he coldly decided to double-cross that bridge when he came to it. And now we are all supposed to marvel at the silky success of the maneuver.
What seems to be occurring in some quarters is that people who have become enchanted with Obama and his appeal, which is considerable, are suspending their critical faculties. They are even attempting to portray Obama as the victim.
This is silly. Barack Obama merely needs to come clean on the important aspects of his relationship with Reverend Wright. He has not done so — and that's why despite all the rave reviews this speech has gotten from various commentators, this issue is not going to go away.
— Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.