Barack Obama's path to The Speech: Not especially courageous

Time goes behind the scenes to relate the decision-making process that led to Barack Obama’s speech on Reverend Jeremiah Wright and race relations. James Carney and Amy Sullivan underscore the fact that Obama’s campaign always knew that Wright would present a problem for their candidate and actively attempted to hide it from the American public. The speech itself came as a fallback maneuver to attempt to redirect attention from Wright and focus instead — and beneficially — on the larger issues of racial resentment in the US:

Long before the sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright became instant hits on YouTube and talk-show fodder for the cable news channels, Barack Obama knew he had a preacher problem. On the eve of launching his campaign for the White House in February 2007, Obama abruptly withdrew an invitation to Wright to deliver the invocation at his announcement speech in Springfield, Ill. Wright had been Obama’s pastor for nearly 20 years. He had brought Obama into the church, helped him find his faith in God, officiated at Obama’s wedding and baptized both his children. But Wright had also said a lot of incendiary things from his pulpit about America over the years, things that would be awkward to explain away for a politician hoping to unite the country and become the first African-American President of the United States.

For a year, Obama didn’t have to explain his relationship with Wright; he didn’t even have to deliver a speech outlining his views on race relations. After all, one of the animating forces behind Obama’s campaign was the notion that he, and we, had somehow transcended the old racial divisions in America, that he wasn’t “the black candidate” for President but a presidential candidate whose race was only part of his much broader appeal. Then on March 13, video clips emerged of Wright in earlier sermons, shouting “God damn America!” and calling 9/11 a case of “America’s chickens … coming home to roost.” It became a story that threatened to capsize Obama’s front-running campaign with the speed of a Wall Street bankruptcy. Obama issued a statement denouncing Wright’s comments but soon realized he had to do more.

This misses a couple of points on the timeline. At first, when challenged by ABC, Obama insisted that he didn’t have any direct knowledge of Wright’s incendiary statements. He told the network that the first time he had known of Wright’s anti-American rhetoric was when they played the clips of his sermons to him. By the time he made the speech, however, Obama had changed his tune considerably — after it became clear that no one would believe that with so many examples, Obama could possibly have remained ignorant of the rhetoric.

And this is the crux of the problem for Obama, who sells himself as the agent of change for the Beltway. The second half of his speech was exceptional. He addressed both black and white resentment in honest and insightful ways, in terms no other politician would touch. Even one passage in which commentators claim he tossed his grandmother under the bus took courage to address, although it would have been better if he had not connected her to Wright. The comments of his grandmother obviously caused him pain, and it does reflect the experiences of America, as many people can relate to having a relative offer intemperate remarks on race, ethnicity, and religious biases.

But the problem is that Obama didn’t bother to address any of this until events forced him into a corner. It doesn’t take a lot of courage to reject the rantings of Wright after they get played on national TV. It doesn’t take a lot of courage to make an address on race relations when the person a candidate has previously identified as a spiritual mentor and political advisor gets caught on tape calling the nation the “US of KKK-A” and exhorting followers to pray that “God damn America”.

Yesterday in my podcast, I talked about an incident where a ministry leader took over the homily to give a 20-minute incoherent rant about the Iraq War, which had nothing to do with her ministry. Several members of the congregation left during the homily, and more fumed afterwards in the sanctuary that the associate priest did not stop her from hijacking the Mass. When I got home, I wrote a lengthy e-mail to my pastor pointing out several fallacies in her scriptural recitations and demanding corrective action. He replied that he had received plenty of feedback about the event — and that the ministry leader would not be allowed to address the congregation in the future.

I don’t consider my e-mail a particularly courageous act, nor am I a prominent member of my congregation. However, when I heard something objectionable from the pulpit, I acted to protest it and demand change — and enough of us acted together to get it. Obama never bothered to make that kind of effort, which leads to the conclusion that either he didn’t see anything particularly objectionable about the rhetoric, or that he lacked the minimal courage to act as an agent for change.

His fine second half of the speech doesn’t cover for those failings. If Obama believed that we all need to act to end divisiveness, as he rightfully said in that latter half, then Obama has failed to meet that standard himself. He only acted when it was necessary for self-preservation. That’s not New Politics, but the old CYA, with a little misdirection thrown in for good measure.