Thoughts On A Speech

by James Kirchick | March 21, 2008

Charles Krauthammer has written, what I believe, the best distillation of Barack Obama's speech on race. Yes, it was a wonderful, even historic, address. But at the end of the day, I'm lost as to what it had to do with the crisis that prompted its delivery: Jeremiah Wright. Obama pulled off a masteful dodge-and-weave. He was faced with what I believed (and still believe) to be a near-insurmountable task -- the long overdue necessity of explaining his near 20-year close friendship with, financial support of, and intellectual affinity for a man who calls upon his congregants to "damn" America and who sympathizes with Hamas -- and artfully avoided it. Obama gave a sweeping speech about the history of race relations in America, the lyrical beauty and honesty of which few can doubt. Yet I'm still scratching my head asking how this speech addressed the specific issue of his affiliation with Pastor Wright.

In reading all the effusive commentaries on the speech, I think many people were hoodwinked by it, not because of what Obama said, but because of what he didn't say. Pace Krauthammer:

The question is why didn't he leave that church? Why didn't he leave -- why doesn't he leave even today -- a pastor who thundered not once but three times from the pulpit (on a DVD the church proudly sells) "God damn America"? Obama's 5,000-word speech, fawned over as a great meditation on race, is little more than an elegantly crafted, brilliantly sophistic justification of that scandalous dereliction.

The explanation that we're hearing from some, that Wright's sermons are not all too different from what many African-American preachers say on Sundays, is, at least to me, irrelevant. Obama, after all, is promising to rise above the pathologies of race, and if he can't do it on the south side of Chicago, I don't see what the fuss is all about his presidential campaign. At points in his speech, Obama wasn't so artful, but deceptive. His attempt to compare Wright's talk about the government-created AIDS plague to Geraldine Ferraro's utterly unremarkable (yet clumsily delivered) observation that Obama's political ascent has at least something to do with the color of his skin (as Obama supporter John McWhorter even admitted well over a year ago), was the political incantation of the 3rd grade taunt, "I know you are but what am I."

Finally, what concerns me most about the Wright controversy isn't the Pastor's racist statements or even his unhinged views of Israel. I don't think Obama agrees with any of that nonsense. What concerns me is the sort of comment that Wright made about Harry Truman's ending World War II, that "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye." This smacks of the Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky/Nation magazine wing of the American left that Democrats serious about this country's security (and winning in November) should not want within 100 miles of the next administration. You see hints of this attitude in his wife's comments, and in Obama's inclination -- shared by many of his supporters -- to commence his presidency with a worldwide American apology tour, meeting unconditionally with our enemies all along the way. While I know that Obama doesn't think the government created AIDS, I'm less assured that he shares a vision of American power that understands our singular role in the world. In sum: does Obama believe Harry Truman was right to end the war with Japan the way that he did? Why is no one in the media asking him this question? That seems to me an entirely fair query of man who wants to become Commander-in-Chief.

--James Kirchick

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