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March 24, 2008

Will Jeremiah Wright Allow the Right to Start Loathing Obama?


All of the racial dynamite that has slowly collected under the surface throughout Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency suddenly exploded last week, with the release of video of racially incendiary sermons delivered by the candidate’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright.


Obama was able to somewhat dig himself out, thanks to one of the great speeches on race in the history of American politics, but it’s clear that we have yet to hear even close to the last of this controversy.


The Wright controversy represents the final summation of the “Will You Condemn This” game, the right’s favorite tactic of guilt by association that has sought to attach the most extreme statements by fringe figures to mainstream liberals, and to cause them to spend political capital either denouncing it or not denouncing it.


Wright's statements are vile, disgusting and (in nearly every case) factually incorrect. But the important fact is that Obama does not believe those things. He shares neither an ideology nor a temperament with Wright. Based on all his writings, speeches, votes and everything else, Obama’s political beliefs are the exact opposite.


Can anyone seriously argue that Obama is a black separatist who believes the government caused AIDS and 9/11, and that we should "God Damn America"? No they cannot. And if he doesn't, then why are we even talking about it? 

Some will argue that Obama should have forcefully and completely disassociated himself from Wright, in a "Sister Souljah moment" akin to Bill Clinton's slamming of that obscure rapper in 1992. The problem with that is that Obama could not so easily do such a thing to the man who has been his pastor for 20 years.


And why should he? Wright was never a political advisor. Obama has never at any point cited Wright as having a formative effect on his political views, only his spiritual development. Why is it now suddenly OK to disqualify a candidate for office based on what church he attends? When people tried this with Mitt Romney, it was called “religious bigotry.” And what of all of the other members of the clergy, all much more powerful and much more creepy than Wright, who have had the ear of the president for the last seven years?  
Indeed, the Sister Souljah incident is probably the second most-overused and one-size-fits-all historical analogy among conservative polemicists, and would be Number One if not for "Munich, Germany, 1938." Some Republicans, apparently, would like each and every Democrat to have a Sister Souljah moment every 24-to-48 hours. 


Will this have an effect on Obama's candidacy? I think it will, but not in the way most think. I don't think it will hurt him in the contest for the Democratic nomination, which he is likely to win anyway, nor do I think it will hurt him much with swing voters. What it will do is turn him into a hate figure on the right. 
An underrated aspect of how George W. Bush won the 2000 and 2004 elections is the way his campaign managed to turn both Al Gore and John Kerry into people whom the conservative base could truly loathe. This applies, of course, to Hillary Clinton as well, but until recently not to Obama, whom many conservatives seemed to at least respect. Not anymore. This is especially crucial for the Republicans in a year like this one, in which their base isn’t especially jazzed about their nominee.

One thing is certain: We’re going to be hearing about Jeremiah Wright for the rest of the campaign. His speeches, as well as “new ones” being “discovered,” will likely be shown on Fox News virtually every day between now and November if Obama is the nominee.


In his speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Obama did something truly amazing. He walked a tightrope. He made it clear that both blacks and whites have all sorts of racial resentments that, while understandable, need to be overcome. He slammed the media for racial sensationalism. He even threw in some Bill Cosby-like appeals to personal responsibility. 
At the Constitution Center, the candidate did all he could to defeat the "will you condemn this" game, speaking honestly and forthrightly about his experience and, more importantly, the American experience. There is clearly much more ugliness to come, but Obama showed once again why he has become a phenomenon – because he exemplifies the best of America, and encourages others to see it along with him.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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