Racial controversy suddenly exploded like roadside bombs, blasting Barack Obama’s bandwagon into a campaign-trail ditch. A firestorm of doubts about his ties to an incendiary pastor, plus incoming flak over his hesitant response, threatened to undo all he had accomplished.
In the midst of all that, the freshman senator from Illinois strode to a podium flanked by American flags, in a building across the street from Philadelphia’s historic Independence Hall. There he demonstrated a sense of leadership, command and clarity under pressure that has been all too rare in our time, yet seemed fitting and proper for the neighborhood.
In a tour de force of rhetoric and reason, the Democratic presidential candidate laid bare his own racial genetics and very personal racial tensions. Then he used them as a mirror to reflect the tensions that have divided us as a nation and must unite us so that we can shape our destiny.
In four decades of covering politicians in trouble, I have heard scores of speeches of desperation and determination, contradiction and contrition. Some that worked; many that didn’t. But this was a work unlike all the rest. It was a speech carefully done both in concept and construction. In a way it was much like one of those manmade climbing walls — each handhold and foothold placed with care so you realize that if you are willing to reach out, you can raise yourself to new heights.
Obama began his history of bigotry in America with the signing of the Declaration of Independence in the Hall just across the street. The Founding Fathers approved their remarkable document only after they took a pass on slavery, leaving it for future generations to decide. He talked about his own “American story” as “the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas,” married to a black woman whose family came here as slaves. He said that “seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts — that out of many, we are truly one.”
The senator noted the explosive controversy triggered by his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who used “incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.”
Obama condemned his pastor’s words, but said he knows that many still have questions: “Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely…”
Obama said of Wright: “He contains within him the contradictions — the good and the bad — of the community that he has served diligently for so many years. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
“These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”
We are all sums of our parts. A part of me will never understand why Obama, who knew his pastor’s prejudices, could have wanted Wright to speak at his campaign kickoff — until aides said Obama’s pastor was too controversial and he was disinvited.
But Obama spoke to that part in us all when he said Tuesday that the anger in black and white communities today is real and powerful — “and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”
With the strength of his words and message, Obama lifted his bandwagon out of the ditch and back onto the trail. His command and clarity in a crisis produced the most presidential moment yet in this topsy-turvy Campaign 2008.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)