Barack Obama gave his “More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia on March 18 to tamp down the furor caused by the release of video excerpts of his pastor’s sermons. Obama himself had proclaimed the importance of his pastor to his life over the past twenty years in books and interviews. Both circumstantial and direct evidence demonstrated Obama’s knowledge of Reverend Wright’s sick and indefensible views.
Rather than forthrightly condemn them in his Philadelphia speech, Obama chose to give the appearance of transcending them. Obama reviewed American history going back to the founding, provided autobiographical reflections, and presented himself as the man come to redeem racial relations in the United States. Obama denied familiarity with the statements whose revelation gave rise to his speech and suggested that they unfairly represented the man. Obama’s speech provided the larger context for understanding Wright. Here is the key passage:
Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way
But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
In my first book, Dreams From My Father, I described the experience of my first service at Trinity:
“People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters….And in that single note – hope! – I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories – of survival, and freedom, and hope – became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn’t need to feel shame about…memories that all people might study and cherish – and with which we could start to rebuild.”
That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother…
Obama’s speech was hailed as a master stroke by members of the mainstream media and other left-wing partisans. Here, for example, is the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan:
This was a testing; and he did not merely pass it by uttering safe bromides. He addressed the intimate, painful love he has for an imperfect and sometimes embittered man. And how that love enables him to see that man’s faults and pain as well as his promise. This is what my faith is about. It is what the Gospels are about. This is a candidate who does not merely speak as a Christian. He acts like a Christian.
Here, for another example, is Time’s Joe Klein:
The rhetorical magic of the speech–what made it extraordinary–was that it was, at once, both unequivocal and healing. There were no weasel words, no Bushian platitudes or Clintonian verb-parsing. Obama was unequivocal in his candor about black anger and white resentment–sentiments that few mainstream politicians acknowledge (although demagogues of both races have consistently exploited them). And he was unequivocal in his refusal to disown Wright. Cynics and political opponents quickly noted that Obama used a forest of verbiage to camouflage a correction–the fact that he was aware of Wright’s views, that he had heard such sermons from the pulpit, after first denying that he had. And that may have been politics as usual. But the speech wasn’t.
It was a grand demonstration of the largely unfulfilled promise of Obama’s candidacy: the possibility that, given his eloquence and intelligence, he will be able to create a new sense of national unity–not by smoothing over problems but by confronting them candidly and with civility.
Yet this and its like elsewhere in the mainstream media were not enough for Garry Wills (and the New York Review of Books). For Wills, Obama’s speech stood with Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 Cooper Union Speech. Lincoln’s speech was a remarkable work of original scholarship reconstructing the views of the founding fathers on slavery. Obama’s speech was a Clintonian triangulation seeking to negotiate his way through an inconvenient personal controversy, and not very honestly at that. Wills presents himself as the voice of moderation in the media hosannas over Obama’s Philadelphia speech:
Obama’s speech has been widely praised–compared with JFK’s speech to Protestant ministers, or FDR’s First Inaugural, even to the Gettysburg Address. Those are exaggerations. But the comparison with the Cooper Union address is both more realistic and more enlightening.
Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech is still looking good 150 years later. Obama’s Philadelphia speech didn’t last 150 days. It failed upon the reentry of Wright to reiterate the views that had prompted Obama to give the Philadelphia speech in the first place. Thus Obama’s press conference on Tuesday.
At his press conference Obama ignored Wright’s racist speech on Sunday to the NAACP in Detroit. Rather, he framed his remarks as a response to Wright’s appearance at the National Press Club on Monday. In this appearance Wright reiterated what Obama had previously dismissed as “snippets of those sermons” on 9/11 as America’s just desserts, AIDS as a product of the United States government, and Louis Farrakhan as a great man. The Wright on display at the National Press Club, however, was a person unrecognizable to Obama. Indeed, he is a person who can be disowned. Moving on from Clintonian triangulation in his Philadelphia speech, Obama had become Nixonian at his press conference. In the immortal formulation of Ron Ziegler, Obama’s Philadelphia speech had been rendered “inoperative.”
What had changed between March 18 and April 29? On March 18, Obama explicitly rejected the opportunity to denounce Wright as the “crank or demagogue” he so transparently is. He was like the grandmother who loved him unconditionally. He could not be disowned. On April 29, Obama had second thoughts. He had reconsidered. He had changed his mind. Wright could be disowned. Why? Obama explained:
[W]hat I think particularly angered me was his suggestion somehow that my previous denunciation of his remarks were somehow political posturing. Anybody who knows me and anybody who knows what I’m about knows that — that I am about trying to bridge gaps and that I see the — the commonality in all people.
Obama returned to this theme in response to another question:
I want to use this press conference to make people absolutely clear that obviously whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed as a consequence of this. I don’t think that he showed much concern for me. I don’t — more importantly, I don’t think he showed much concern for what we are trying to do in this campaign and what we’re trying to do for the American people and with the American people.
And the third time around on this theme Obama got to the nub of it:
[A]t a certain point, if what somebody says contradicts what you believe so fundamentally, and then he questions whether or not you believe it in front of the National Press Club, then that’s enough. That’s — that’s a show of disrespect to me. It’s a — it is also, I think, an insult to what we’ve been trying to do in this campaign.
In Obama’s eyes, the most serious wrongdoing in Wright’s statements is their disrespect of Obama. From the revered father figure who could not be disowned, Wright has become the the father from whom separation must be achieved in favor of his own identity, or the boorish relative who cannot be tolerated. The adolescent grandiosity and adolescent pettiness of Obama’s remarks are perhaps the most shocking revelations of this entire episode.