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Can Obama Overcome the 'Wright Stuff?'

“I charge the the white man.” This incendiary speech, opening the film Malcolm X and culminating with a burning American flag resolving into the letter, encapsulates the anger and fear surrounding Barack Obama’s association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright.


By Bill Bradley

The racial politics swirling around Barack Obama will undoubtedly dominate the week ahead in presidential politics. In fact, they may well dominate much of the next seven-odd months. It is not only about race, either. The questions yet unanswered by his speech last Tuesday in Philadelphia are at least as much about patriotism.

John McCain, returned from his tour of the Middle East and Europe, is in California for three days this week to raise badly needed funds and to stake a longshot claim to the Golden State in the general election. On Wednesday morning at the Bonanventure Hotel in Los Angeles, he delivers a major address on national security and geopolitical matters, addressing what he learned in Iraq and the other nations he toured last week.

Notwithstanding the firestorm of controversy over the past comments of his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and some consequent teetering in the polls, Obama had a good week last week. For one thing, it became apparent that he had far more cash on hand at the end of February than rival Hillary Clinton, not to mention John McCain, whose best month of fundraising doesn’t match Obama’s best week.
Obama’s fundraising machine, centered on the Internet, has been humming along the whole time.

In addition, Hillary’s fading hopes for the nomination took a major hit when it became apparent that there would be no do-over primaries in Florida or Michigan, two states which she had previously claimed victory notwithstanding the fact that she’d earlier agreed with the Democratic Party’s decision not to recognize their rogue primaries in which no one campaigned. The hurdles to hastily organized primaries at the tail end of the season in June were simply too high, and Clinton forces would have had to block independents who participated in the real Republican primary — largely on behalf of McCain — from voting in a real Democratic primary.


By week’s end, it was apparent that Clinton almost certainly could not catch Obama in delegates won in the primaries and caucuses or in the popular vote. The media counts, incidentally, which have Obama over 700,000 votes ahead of Clinton, do not include, oddly, votes cast in the caucuses. Most of those caucuses have had record turnouts, making them easily the equivalent of smaller primary elections. Include them in the popular vote, as they should be, and Obama’s lead is well over a million votes.

And now the bad news. Obama got a good start on addressing his Jeremiah Wright last week. But only a start.

As I wrote in real time as the Jeremiah Wright firestorm broke 10 days ago, it was a clearly survivable situation. When Obama gave his speech on race in America and the Jeremiah Wright controversy six days ago, he solved much of his problem with regard to the Democratic nomination fight.

Polls show that his speech worked, especially with Democratic voters, and largely with independent voters.

An even more recent poll for CBS News showed, as does the Rasmussen poll, that most Americans think highly of Obama’s speech. http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/MARB-ObamaCallback.pdf

Nevertheless, Barack Obama’s path to the White House has certainly gotten longer and more perilous.

Obama is unlikely to become president unless he can explain Malcolm X (Wright’s most outrageous statements are a stand-in for what he represented), the anger that produced him, and the preposterous statements that not infrequently emanate from the leadership of his church and other black churches.


He can’t simply float along as the easy post-racial figure, a man Americans can vote for as a salve for the issue of race in America.

This may have been inevitable. And it certainly became inevitable when he decided not to be a Hawaiian, or a nice Ivy League lawyer, but a black Chicago politician.

Obama made a choice. He was born and in large measure raised in Hawaii, America’s polyglot paradise in the Pacific, a place where questions of racial background can become so complex as to be irrelevant. But after a glittering Ivy League debut, he decided to enter politics, not as a multi-racial, post-racial figure in Hawaii or California — where he spent two years attending Occidental College — but in a 76% black state senate district in Chicago.

Why he decided to embrace his blackness as a very young man may be a matter more for the psychologically inclined than the politically inclined. In any event, it is what he did.

As a man who was neither a movie star nor super-rich, Obama needed a base for his rise. As he is a politician and not a deity, he is by nature an opportunist. (All politicians are opportunists. The question is the degree of egregiousness.) A big part of his opportunity was being a member of what is arguably the leading black church in Chicago.

For a man with a missing father, Trinity United Church of Christ and the Rev. Wright played a key role in Obama’s life. Mothered by a white woman and raised in large measure by white grandparents, Obama sought what he did not have in his life as a biracial boy. A black family. The black church in Chicago became a stand-in for that. And Wright, a complex man who, by most accounts, has done some serious good in Chicago to balance his now well-publicized ranting, became in Obama’s own recent words, an “uncle.”


The church also answered the formerly frequently posed question about Obama. Is he “black enough?”

But as a result of this embrace — and Obama notably refused to disown Wright even as he renounced his now infamous comments — Obama still has serious questions to answer.

He has to explain to America — and in particular, to key voting groups such as the Scot-Irish who make up much of the working class and patriotically-oriented in the country — the anger that produced such irrational notions as the US government inventing AIDS to destroy the black people, or the idea that the US may have deserved 9/11. And why men such as Wright, whose generation grew up with a frequently rugged racism directed toward them and developed within them, have a chip on their shoulder today.

This task certainly not what Obama wanted to take on when he launched his candidacy on a wave of high-flown, impressively-delivered rhetoric, floating over the historic divisions of America on a cloud of post-racialism.

But it is what he must do now. He didn’t intend to run as “the black candidate” but as a candidate who happened to be black. But being black, or at least, “black enough,” as it turns out, was at least in part a choice for Obama. And as a result of that choice, he rose in Chicago enough to become a United States senator. And as a result of being a senator, he has enough stature to wage this campaign.


As a result, this conversation about race will continue throughout the campaign, together with a conversation about patriotism. “God damn America” is not a concept that goes down well with most voters.

This may be even more of an imperative for Obama than the racial issue, though the two are joined.

What is his idea of America? How is he an American patriot in a time of war?

What can he do to convince the Scots-Irish American voter that he is enough of a patriot to take on the uber-patriot, John McCain, a man who does not have to wave the flag because his very presence waves the flag?

In many respects, Obama represents an emerging America: multi-racial, with an internationalist perspective. But he will not represent any America, at least as president, until he demonstrates that he represents the enduring America.

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