A Thomas Eagleton moment?

In his widely lauded Philadelphia speech, Barack Obama declared of Reverend Jeremiah Wright: “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.” It wasn’t quiite up to George McGovern’s expression of “1,000 percent” support for Thomas Eagleton as his running mate after revelations of his shock therapy, but it left Obama and Wright closely joined. Something about the revelation of Eagleton’s shock therapy made his ultimate dumping by McGovern inevitable. Something about Wright’s frank racism, among other things, now calls for some further response by Obama.

It’s too late for Barack Obama to have his own Sister Souljah moment with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. After Wright’s performances before the NAACP in Detroit and before the National Press Club in Washington, however, it may be time for Obama’s own Thomas Eagleton moment. As with Eagleton, the brain may be critical. As Byron York notes, Obama has heretofore confined himself to a complacent expression of disagreement with Reverend Wright, commenting with respect to Wright’s greatest hits (summarized by York and reiterated yesterday by Wright}: “They don’t represent my views and they don’t represent what this campaign is about.”

Now that Reverend Wright has expounded on the innate biological differences between whites and blacks, surely some more definitive break is called for. Obama knows that Wright is a thorough-going racist. In Dreams From My Father, Obama recalls the first sermon he heard Wright preach. It was the sermon that attracted Obama to Wright. In the sermon, as recalled by Obama, Wright condemned the society “where white folks’ greed runs a world in need.” Now we learn from Wright that it’s a cranial thing; he wouldn’t understand.

Wright’s racism casts a backward light on Obama’s original attaction to Wright. It is a racism that cannot withstand scrutiny and it is one that Obama will have to renounce in less complacent terms than the ones to which he has confined himself so far. Recall Obama’s exposition of Wright’s views in the the Philadelphia speech:

We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through…

It turns out, however, that Reverend Wright is indeed a crank and a demagogue. Despite Obama’s best efforts, Wright has now supplied the allegedly missing “context” in which Wright is best understood.

What would a Thomas Eagleton moment look like in the “context” supplied by Reverend Wright? It’s too late for another speech that seeks to transcend the controversy. The reemergence of Wright shows how inadequate Obama’s Philadelphia speech was to the task. Obama could resign his membership in Wright’s church, even though Obama now emphasizes that Wright is only the church’s retired pastor. Or he could forthrightly denounce Wright. Wright himself seems to be begging for such a denunciation.

It is a a consummation that Obama has carefully avoided, but it is one devoutly to be wished.


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