Barack Obama is a magician.
He could tell me it’s raining on a sunny day, and I’d grab an umbrella. He could tell me the moon is the sun, and I’d reach for my shades.
He could even tell me that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s rants god-damning America and blaming AIDS on a white-man conspiracy were wrong but essentially justified by a racist past … and I’d have to slap myself before I saddled up a polka-dotted horse and galloped down the Yellow Brick Road.
Obama’s speech Tuesday from Philadelphia — the city of brotherly love — was eloquent, inspiring, and will be read in schools for generations. But between the lines of change and reconciliation were a discomfiting hint of buried fury, a sense of racial righteousness and a tacit approval attached to his expressed disapproval of Wright’s now-famous raves that will leave many Americans wondering: Is he with us? Or is he against us?
In a flourish of brilliance, Obama framed his Rev. Wright problem in the context of America’s unfinished work toward “a more perfect union,” as envisioned by the nation’s forefathers. It isn’t that Wright is off-the-wall, we were to infer. It is that our country is falling short of its promise.
Which isn’t completely false, of course, but not completely true, either. America isn’t finished with its business of equality — and race does still bedevil us — but our progress since the twin blights of slavery and Jim Crow isn’t insignificant.
Ever conscious of his pledge to unity, Obama acknowledged as much, saying that Wright wasn’t wrong to talk about racism — even if it was one-sided. He was wrong to speak “as if our society was static: as if no progress has been made.”
But what he didn’t acknowledge is that Wright is completely off-the-wall, even if the snippets we’ve seen are only a fraction of his life’s work. Give Wright credit for helping the unfortunate and for leading Obama to his faith. But those accomplishments don’t quite neutralize the anti-white message of the man Obama selected as his spiritual mentor.
Like the best politicians, Obama senses our restlessness. One of his many gifts is his ability to lull people with flawless logic and uplifting rhetoric.
Of course he disagrees with some of Wright’s controversial statements — just as most people disagree with some of what their pastors and rabbis say. We’re yum-yumming that idea, thinking “Yeah, that’s right,” when our inner reality-checker kicks in and kills the buzz.
Then we remember that advancing lies and conspiracy theories that pit black against white is not, in fact, defensible. And that what many find offensive in Wright’s statements is not comparable to the minor differences they likely have with their own pastors and rabbis.
The question still remains: Why did Obama, future author of racial harmony, stay with a preacher whose black nationalist leanings were no secret?
Obama said he could no more denounce Wright, who is “like family,” than he could denounce the black community — or his white grandmother. Instead, he praised Wright’s larger presence and purpose in the black community as outweighing the YouTube replays of a profane man on the verge of paranoiac hysteria.
Moreover, the minister whom Obama first got to know 20 years ago spoke of “our obligations to love one another.” But given Wright’s racist eruptions, white Americans are justified in wondering whether those charitable thoughts also apply to them.
Finally, Obama suggested that if Wright is occasionally angry, he has a right to be, as does the community he serves. And if white Americans are startled to witness that anger, they haven’t been paying attention.
That was a risky message, but one that counted on a reliable well of white guilt. Then Obama took another preemptive gamble and implored Americans to look at Wright’s anger, rather than avert their gaze, and to embrace that anger as a prompt to change.
In other words, he artfully shifted focus from his still-perplexing relationship with Wright to our own dark hearts. The choice is ours, he said: We can focus on one ol’ crazy uncle who sometimes gets a little carried away — and in so doing, destroy the audacity of hope. Or, we can keep our nation’s date with destiny, fulfill the dream imagined 221 years ago to form a more perfect union.
And elect Barack Obama.
Anyone who fails to embrace the only appealing option — eschewing cheap spectacle for a dance with destiny to the tune of hope — begins to feel a little woozy and, oddly, un-American.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group