After a week of disappointing political pussyfooting, on Tuesday, Senator Barack Obama’s speech analyzing America’s racial issues was masterful. Once again, Illinois’ rookie Senator hit a grand slam with two strikes against him. Obama’s speech was thoughtful, thought-provoking, rich, complex, effective, poetic, and inspiring.
Finally, on Tuesday, Obama did what he needed to do (and in my previous blog posting I said I hoped he would do) – he told the truth. Overlooking his previous Clintonesque denials, he admitted he had heard Reverend Wright make outrageous statements. Obama rejected Wright’s “profoundly distorted view of this country.” Obama said “white racism” is not “endemic. He warned of the tendency to elevate “what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” And Obama refused to blame the Middle East conflict on “stalwart allies like Israel,” instead blaming “the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”
At the same time, Obama rooted these statements in African-Americans’ historic anguish and affirmed his loyalty to his pastor and his community. By explaining the anger, Obama did what modern politicians rarely do, he acknowledged complexity. By refusing to disown Reverend Wright while disavowing Wright’s ideology, Obama avoided charges that he lacked steadfastness while showing his independence of mind and the courage of his convictions.
Having staunched the bleeding, Obama then offered some healing. He eloquently highlighted his distinctive, patriotic message of self-awareness, self-criticism and reconciliation. Without explaining how he personally transcended this rage, he repudiated it. “That anger is not always productive,” Obama confessed; “indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.” Obama boldly mentioned moments of deep racial division like the O.J. Simpson trial, a risky but accurate comparison because it too showed the clashing perceptions and sensibilities of whites and blacks. Moreover, Obama thoughtfully acknowledged white resentment over issues such as busing and affirmative action. Characteristically, he refused to dwell in the land of wrongs and recriminations, offering a clever formulation to push the country toward healing and hope. “This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected,” he proclaimed, inviting his fellow Americans to help transcend the divisions and perfect their union.
True, Obama overstepped occasionally. He unfairly compared the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s years of invective with former Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro’s one foolish comment attributing Obama’s success to his race. And true, Obama was far too forgiving of his pastor’s hate-mongering, and his own passivity. But it was hard to resist the speech’s – or the speaker’s – appeal. Americans are looking for redemption, and Barack Obama plays the redeemer brilliantly. If the speech works politically as well as it worked rhetorically and substantively, historians will compare it to John F. Kennedy’s speech in Houston to the Baptist ministers on religious tolerance in America.
Here, then, remains the Obama campaign’s great mystery. Many Americans want to believe, to trust that he is what he purports to be, that his gift for words will translate into a genius for governance. But the questions cropping up are not simply about his inexperience but his inaction. He never confronted Jeremiah Wright. He sat silently by as the United Church of Christ to which he belongs passed a resolution singling out Israel, among all countries for opprobrium and possible divestment. Still, in our media-besotted age, words do matter, presidential rhetoric can shape an era. Americans of all parties and races should be proud that this presidential candidate is willing to tackle difficult topics, build rhetorical bridges, and try healing some of the nation’s deepest wounds.