In truth, Obama’s repudiation of Wright’s statements was extremely equivocal. He calls the reverend’s charges “not only wrong but divisive” – that is, untimely – because the American people are “hungry” for a “message of unity” right now. Wright expressed “a profoundly distorted view of this country,” Obama says, “a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” What that means becomes clearer a little later, when Obama declares, “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is . . . that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made.” Yet Obama’s own candidacy confirms “that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.” In blunt terms, Wright wasn’t wrong that America was, and was intended to be, a racist or unjust nation; he was wrong, however, to speak as though the country were as racist or unjust as it used to be. “America can change” not in the sense of living up to its first principles but in the opposite sense, of moving away from them. Except, that is, from the deepest principle of all, which expresses “the true genius of this nation”– our belief in change itself, or in the deliberative process that produces such change. Only the “narrative” of America, the movement away from its founding principles as originally understood, deserves liberals’ allegiance.
Wright’s eruptions were dangerous to Obama not merely because they raised questions about his judgment in having Wright as his pastor and raised doubts about the candidate’s ability to be a unifying, post-racial figure. They were dangerous above all because they represented a particularly virulent strain of the spirit of Sixties radicalism and shook Obama’s claim to have left all that behind him and his candidacy. As he said in his second, more decisive repudiation of his old friend on April 29, 2008, “The reason our campaign has been so successful is because we had moved beyond these old arguments.” Because he did not actually disagree with his pastor’s fundamental charge but could not say so openly, Obama’s reasons for denouncing Wright became oddly personal. “I don’t think that he showed much concern for me,” Obama told reporters. Indeed, Wright’s performance at the National Press Club was “a show of disrespect to me. It’s . . . also, I think, an insult to what we’ve been trying to do in this campaign.”