Barack Obama provided his response this morning to the Reverend Wright issue. By all accounts his speech was thought-provoking, impassioned and correct. It raised issues that must be addressed for our society to move forward. It was utterly courageous. I truly believe that in fifty years it will be read, side-by-side, with the words of Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln as great pieces of rhetoric about race relations in this Country.
But will it be heard? Does this fix the damage caused by the Jeremiah Wright soundclip?
I don’t think so.
For better of worse (mostly worse), America is a sound-bite society. In this regard, the Wright clip is devastating and Obama’s failed to meet it. Compare the two speeches. Is there one single point that will “play” as well as Reverend Wright’s talk? Frankly this was an uphill battle because I believe only a Man of God could have delivered such a devastatingly captivating speech. When he says “America’s chickens…are coming home…to roost” it almost sounds as if he’s an actor reading a line from “Black Preacher.” The only parallel I can think of is Colonel Jessup (“you’re goddamned right I ordered the Code Red!”) and Al Pacino’s crazed rant in The Devil’s Advocate (“God is an absentee landlord!”). Obviously Obama could never have delivered anything so hyperbolic (only a preacher can shout from the lectern), but I do think he could have provided a more FoxNews friendly soundbite. Obama’s speech was sharp, yes, but it’s the proverbial knife brought to the gunfight. It lacks the visceral power of “God Damn America.”
I also think he missed his audience. In the hallowed halls of Harvard law he wins the debate. Fiery (but baseless) rhetoric versus a well-articulated plan to treat the Country’s ailments? Advantage Barack. But the persons angered by Wright’s talk aren’t the culterati and the sociology professors, they’re the beer-swilling Nascar crowd. I’m not defending the words of the Reverend (although I personally don’t find them any more controversial than Falwell’s post 9/11 comments), and I’m not dissing the beer swillers (Nascar fans, yeah, I’m dissing you). The fact is people shouldn’t have to parse a 5,000 word speech to justify their gut reaction to a candidate. And this speech is not likely to remedy that gut reaction. Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t know that all people view this as a “black issue.” Frankly I think many people see this as a hate-America issue. Does proposing a discussion on race relations meet that concern or exacerbate it?
I think, unfortunately, it’s the latter. I fear that the average American will see this as “more complaining about race by a black dude” rather than a reasoned reflection as to how we got here.
Finally I think he failed to meet the message. The fear is not that Wright is an America-basher, it’s whether Obama is. Reverend Wright’s speech wasn’t met by boos or gasps, it was haled with Amens and Hallelujahs. Although he may not have been present in Church that day, clearly statements like that — or worse — were made to him by contemporaries and fellow church-goers. Assuming that’s the case I think he missed an opportunity to show himself as a person with the ability (and willingness) to listen to ideas from all sides – both controversial and bland – yet still make the best decision. We don’t want another President who surrounds himself with sycophants and yes-men but we do want someone who will stand up for his Country. By showing the ability to listen to controversial topics, even those from friends and associates, yet still “love America,” Obama would have evidenced his fitness as President.
It is appropos that Wright analogizes to Hiroshima in his speech. The timing, content, and manner of his speech make it a virtual atom bomb of invective. Barack Obama’s response was fascinating and inspirational, yes, but it wasn’t an in kind response.