Obama Not Yet Out of the Woods

March 20, 2008

Barack Obama is nothing if not smooth. He seamlessly turned a would-be apology over his pastor’s racism into an indictment against society’s racism.

It wasn’t, “Jeremiah Wright was wrong, and I was wrong for going to his church for 20 years despite his apparently unforgiving spirit, his racist and anti-American utterances, and his vulgarity, including taking the Lord’s name in vain from his very pulpit — the one venue above all on God’s sacred planet that such irreverence is inalterably forbidden. No matter what racial injustices have been perpetrated over the years by mankind toward mankind, they are never an excuse for disrespecting God, and especially in His house.”

Instead, Obama said, essentially, “I reject many of Rev. Wright’s remarks as divisive and perhaps even unfairly critical of America, but you have to admit, he has a point.”

You can talk all you want to about Obama’s “audacity of hope” theme, but the only audacity I heard in his speech was his lecturing Americans on their racism instead of explaining his longtime intimate relationship with Wright.

Obama’s forte is not, as many have suggested, waxing eloquent while saying nothing. His real gift is saying one thing while appearing to say the opposite, so mellifluously and disarmingly that audiences shake their heads in affirmation of the very proposition they oppose. Without changing their minds, they believe they have agreed with him. Amazing — and scary.

In his speech, he needed to condemn and distance himself from his pastor. And he did — sort of. But before he was finished, he had virtually excused his pastor’s statements and given us a history lesson in precisely why resentments giving rise to such statements came about — and were justified. In other words, “Sure, Pastor Wright sometimes crossed the line, but don’t let his tone obscure the underlying message: Racism is still pervasive in this country, which hasn’t come close to making amends for its shameful past.”

Reasonable people can debate the extent of the continued existence and effects of racism in both directions today, but in the meantime, we should recognize that Obama ducked the questions his speech was purportedly crafted to answer.

Assuming that not everyone listening to the speech was so mesmerized by Obama’s intoxicating spell of lofty rhetoric that they forgot its purpose, Obama is not yet out of the woods on this issue. And that’s his own fault.

He needed to speak directly, but he obfuscated with cleverly concealed contradictions and evasions. He said his campaign presents a powerful message of unity, but his words stoked racial unease and divisiveness. While paying lip service to our national motto, “Out of Many, One,” he couldn’t quit talking about people in terms of their color and ethnicity.

He scolded us for our racism, but he

— encouraged us to keep race-consciousness at the very forefront of our national psyche,

— sloppily conflated Pastor Wright’s manifest racism and anti-Americanism with his white grandmother’s stereotypical remarks and Democrat Geraldine Ferraro’s political observation about the effect of Obama’s race on his electability, and

— didn’t point his accusing finger at the race-hustlers of our time, who fan the flames of racial resentment and hostility.

Rather, he fed into feelings of racial distrust by playing to his leftist base and wrongly castigating Reaganism and conservative commentators for their alleged racism. He legitimized the noxious notion that conservative opposition to welfare and affirmative action are born of racism by saying we must “realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams.” He implied that conservative resistance to throwing endless money at public education is rooted in a “cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn, that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem.” These are misguided and damaging words.

Conservatives promote school choice precisely because they want to deliver disadvantaged children from their confinement in inner-city schools. Conservative opposition to affirmative action and unbridled welfare is not based on greed, selfishness or racism but on a philosophical difference over how best to solve problems while preserving the dignity of all individual human beings.

It is certainly Obama’s prerogative to make his campaign about race while saying it transcends it. It is his right to duck the question of his intimate connection to Wright, and he may take the offensive by deftly turning the charges of racism back on conservatives.

But it is up to the voters to evaluate his cultural analysis, his evasiveness and the wisdom of his proposed big-government solutions for our problems. I am unconvinced that his eloquence has successfully masked the deep problems that have begun to haunt his driving presidential ambitions.