Reverend Jeremiah Wright surprised just about everybody this week by launching a counter-attack of speaking engagements and interviews designed to give his side of the out-of-context remarks recycled in numerous YouTube clips. The image-rehabilitation tour started rather quietly on Friday during a taped sit-down with PBS's Bill Moyers. From there, however, the tenor of the discussion began to get more animated. Sunday night saw Wright speaking to an NAACP dinner in Detroit, during which he found time to mock the accents of both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. On Monday, Wright addressed a gathering at the National Press Club, where he'd been invited to speak by a supporter of Hillary Clinton. The culmination of his media-blitz, Wright's press club visit found him back in top YouTube form, providing a host of incendiary new clips for television and computer screens still hungry for his oratory.
Well, the reviews of Wright's latest show are coming in from all quarters. Here's a sampling, beginning with the man who has the most to win or lose by Wright's continued presence in the spotlight, Barack Obama:
"Some of the comments that Rev. Wright has made offended me, and I understand why they offend the American people. He does not speak for me. He does not speak for the campaign."
But what he said today extemporaneously, the way in which he said it, the unrepentant manner in which he reiterated some of the most absurd and offensive views, his attempt to equate everything he believes with the black church as a whole, and his open public embrace of Farrakhan and hostility to the existence of Israel Zionism, make any further defense of him impossible. This was a calculated, ugly, repulsive, vile display of arrogance, egotism, and self-regard... ...an outright attack on the stated beliefs and policies and values of Barack Obama in a secular setting.
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright went to Washington on Monday not to praise Barack Obama, but to bury him. Smiling, cracking corny jokes, mugging it up for the big-time news media--this reverend is never going away. He's found himself a national platform, and he's loving it...
...For Senator Obama, the re-emergence of Rev. Wright has been devastating. The senator has been trying desperately to bolster his standing with skeptical and even hostile white working-class voters. When the story line of the campaign shifts almost entirely to the race-in-your face antics of someone like Mr. Wright, Mr. Obama's chances can only suffer.
Should it become necessary in the months from now to indentify the moment that doomed Obama's presidential aspirations, attention is likely to focus on the hour between nine and ten this morning at the National Press Club. It was then that Wright, Obama's longtime pastor, reignited a controversy about race from which Obama had only recently recovered--and added lighter fuel.
Turning to the Right, The National Review'sByron York chimes in with:
Wright's performance not only left the Obama campaign scrambling to respond. It left some Democratic politicos, unattached to either the Obama or Clinton campaign, believing that Obama will have to abandon his vow, made last month in his Philadelphia speech on race, that "I can no more disown [Wright] than I can disown the black community."
Early in this campaign, Senator Obama earned support from many voters with the notion that he wanted to transcend racial politics. Rev. Wright is exacerbating them in a way not seen in recent years. Barack Obama cannot remain on both sides of this. He has to make a decision. He is not running for national Mediator. He is running for President. In time, that job brings tough decisions. He's there now.
There are an intrepid few, however, who feel that more Wright exposure might actually help Obama. Here is Slate'sChristopher Beam:
Needless to say, this isn't exactly the Obama campaign's dream. From their perspective, any attention on Wright is bad. Obama has been struggling to win over working-class white voters--the last thing he needs is a media-driven refresher on his greatest liability. And indeed, Wright's comeback may hurt Obama. But in the long run, it's likely to help the candidate more than hurt him.
My take? Yes, Jeremiah Wright has every right to try to attempt to contextualize the bits of his sermons that ring foul to so many Americans. We can agree or disagree with his conclusions, but it is important to understand the rhetorical lead-up to Wright's most-famous flourish, "God Damn America!" Unfortunately for Wright, in attempting to clarify, he has largely reinforced what the earlier clips seem to show. His descriptions of Zionism do nothing to help mend the age-old tension between Christians and Jews. While the self-determinism of Black Liberation Theology has its merits, glossing-over Louis Farrakahn's anti-semitism by essentially saying, "well, he never did anything bad to me" is deeply problematic. Furthermore, Wright's depiction of this whole episode as an attack on the black church is yet another willful over-simplification.
Preachers are, by definition, provocateurs. They must stir their flocks. Inspire loyalty, reverence, and participation. That tradition, while often associated with African American ministers, is by no means limited to a single race or demographic. There are many a "man of God" whose words we might dissect and expose. Pastor Hagee, anyone? That said, I have to agree with Sullivan. Wright is a problem for Obama precisely because his world view is at odds with the aims of the Obama campaign.
So, should Obama disown Wright? No. But he must engage the troubling ideas one-by-one, and not with vague statements. While some will point to Obama's 20-year vantage-point from Trinity's pews as proof that the Illinois Senator lacks the proper leadership qualities to become president, Obama can do much to prove them wrong with a strong and unequivocal response to each and every one of Reverend Wright's misguided claims. That might prove a very long speech, indeed.
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