I am baffled why it is racist to inquire about the racist Rev. Wright when Obama himself not so long ago boasted of the value of his friendship with Wright, and sympathetic journalists saw the radical Wright as a sort of proof of Obama’s leftwing fides. And while we are battered by economic news, and Wright becomes a “distraction”, that defensive argument is largely used out of embarrassment, since at one time most in the Obama circle once saw Wright, in the mode of the Ayers friendship and the ACORN patronage, as a definite plus. Only when he became a liability as the race widened was Wright dropped. And by the time Obama had become a messianic figure, any remembrance of Wright at all, in Orwellian fashion, transmogrified into our present smear of “racist.” That was then, this is now. So, for example, we forget that in February 2007, the progressive journalist Ben Wallace-Wells wrote a balanced, but sympathetic article for Rolling Stone about the soon-to-be presidential candidate Barack Obama entitled “Destiny’s Child.” After examining Obama’s associates, world view, and background, Wallace-Wells concluded, I think, in admiration:
This is as openly radical a background as any significant American political figure has ever emerged from, as much Malcolm X as Martin Luther King Jr. Wright is not an incidental figure in Obama’s life, or his politics. The senator “affirmed” his Christian faith in this church; he uses Wright as a “sounding board” to “make sure I’m not losing myself in the hype and hoopla.” Both the title of Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, and the theme for his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 come from Wright’s sermons. “If you want to understand where Barack gets his feeling and rhetoric from,” says the Rev. Jim Wallis, a leader of the religious left, “just look at Jeremiah Wright.”
Obama wasn’t born into Wright’s world. His parents were atheists, an African bureaucrat and a white grad student, Jerry Falwell’s nightmare vision of secular liberals come to life. Obama could have picked any church — the spare, spiritual places in Hyde Park, the awesome pomp and procession of the cathedrals downtown. He could have picked a mosque, for that matter, or even a synagogue. Obama chose Trinity United. He picked Jeremiah Wright. Obama writes in his autobiography that on the day he chose this church, he felt the spirit of black memory and history moving through Wright, and “felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams.”
Obama has now spent two years in the Senate and written two books about himself, both remarkably frank: There is a desire to own his story, to be both his own Boswell and his own investigative reporter. When you read his autobiography, the surprising thing — for such a measured politician — is the depth of radical feeling that seeps through, the amount of Jeremiah Wright that’s packed in there. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. Obama’s life story is a splicing of two different roles, and two different ways of thinking about America’s. One is that of the consummate insider, someone who has been raised believing that he will help to lead America, who believes in this country’s capacity for acts of outstanding virtue. The other is that of a black man who feels very deeply that this country’s exercise of its great inherited wealth and power has been grossly unjust. This tension runs through his life; Obama is at once an insider and an outsider, a bomb thrower and the class president. “I’m somebody who believes in this country and its institutions,” he tells me. “But I often think they’re broken.”
So was it racist of Wallace-Wells to bring up Rev. Wright? And if not, why is it now, especially when Obama himself not long ago used to evoke Wright (and others) on his own accord? So, again for example, in a March 27, 2004 inteview with Chicago-Sun Times religion columnist Cathleen Falsani (the “God girl”), Obama offered the now rather startling admissions:
GG: Do you still attend Trinity?
OBAMA:Yep. Every week. 11 oclock service.
GG: Do you have people in your life that you look to for guidance?
OBAMA:Well, my pastor [Wright] is certainly someone who I have an enormous amount of respect for. I have a number of friends who are ministers. Reverend Meeks is a close friend and colleague of mine in the state Senate. Father Michael Pfleger is a dear friend, and somebody I interact with closely.
GG:Those two will keep you on your toes.
OBAMA: And they’re good friends. Because both of them are in the public eye, there are ways we can all reflect on what’s happening to each of us in ways that are useful. I think they can help me, they can appreciate certain specific challenges that I go through as a public figure.