Barack Obama needs to give another speech — this time to address his pattern of casually tolerating statements that express a sour view of America or that are profoundly anti-American.
Last week’s speech by Obama was primarily about race, with only tangential attention to Reverend Wright’s anti-American statements. Yet, these comments were just as stunning as those related to race, perhaps more so.
Obama’s decision to cast the controversy over Wright’s statements as primarily a racial one was smart. It’s much easier for Obama to dismiss Wright’s statements, especially on matters that Obama can expound upon effortlessly and elegantly, than it is for him to explain why he doesn’t seem particularly exercised when such statements are made.
While Wright’s “God damn America” is bad in isolation, had Obama immediately rebuked Wright for making only one such statement, that would’ve ended the matter. But Obama admits that during his 20-year association with Wright, the candidate heard the pastor make other controversial remarks. Obama never indicated that he’d confronted his friend on any of them. Rather, he gave Wright at least $20,000, a sum that surely didn’t impede Wright’s ability to disseminate his toxic beliefs even more broadly.
Obama’s association with Wright isn’t the only peculiar one. The Politico’s Ben Smith reports that Obama went to the home of former Weather Underground radicals Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn in 1995 to be introduced to neighborhood activists. Smith notes that Ayers and Dohrn became fugitives “in 1970, after a bomb — designed to kill army officers in New Jersey — accidentally destroyed a Greenwich Village townhouse, and turned themselves into authorities in 1980. They were never prosecuted for their involvement with the 25 bombings the Weather Underground claimed; charges were dropped because of improper FBI surveillance.”
In 2001 (9/11, no less), Ayers — described by one Politico source as a friend of Obama’s — was quoted in the New York Times declaring, “I don’t regret setting the bombs; I feel we didn’t do enough.” Again, when asked about it, Obama gave no indication that he’d ever rebuked Ayers. Obama simply dismissed the matter, stating that he was a child in the ’70s.
Obama did attempt to explain his wife’s comments — that she was proud of her country now for the first time — by claiming that she was referring not to the country, but to the country’s politics. The explanation was met with no small amount of derision. He hasn’t yet tried to spin her claim that America is “downright mean.”
Obama’s supporters contend that the views of others shouldn’t be attributable to him. Fair enough, to a point.
But neither Wright nor Mrs. Obama are casual acquaintances. It defies belief that Obama wasn’t, at minimum, indifferent to the attitudes conveyed by their statements.
Obviously, candidates rarely, if ever, feel compelled to reject statements critical of national policy – disagreements over national policies are precisely what presidential campaigns are all about. But Wright’s statements, and to a lesser extent those of Mrs. Obama, go to the nation’s character and that of its people. They suggest not simply that America’s policies, or in some cases its actions, are bad, but that America’s very core is mean, corrupt, and evil.
Obama’s less-than-robust repudiation of that attitude feeds a rather unappealing narrative that hasn’t gone unnoticed in the blogosphere or on talk radio: Obama doesn’t just stop wearing an American-flag lapel pin, he makes a show of refusing to do so. He asserts that the reason we need more troops is so Americans aren’t just air raiding villages and killing civilians. He slouches insouciantly during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — no hand over his heart. He’ll talk to our country’s enemies without preconditions, but refuses to debate on Fox News. Posters of Che Guevara on his campaign office are merely “inappropriate.” Cherry-picking? Maybe. But the basket’s filling up fast.
This kind of attitude may be unremarkable (maybe even mandatory) for a college professor. A mechanic won’t lose his job if he claims America is the scourge of the world. A presidential candidate, however, can’t afford to be aligned with such an attitude. He can’t even be indifferent toward it.
After all, does anyone think that JFK would have rationalized his priest saying — even once — “God damn America”? Would Ronald Reagan have knocked back a few with Dohrn and Ayers? Does anyone seriously doubt that Teddy Roosevelt would have popped Reverend Wright in the nose?
Obama’s casual tolerance of “blame America first” rhetoric isn’t a trait usually associated with a commander-in-chief. And it’s not one that plays particularly well on Election Day.
– Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. These comments do not necessarily reflect the position of the commission.