A Review of Obama's Philadelphia Speech

by William Galston | March 19, 2008

I celebrate myself;
And what I assume you shall assume;
For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.

...

Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then, I contradict myself?
(I am large--I contain multitudes.)

            Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

I attend a small synagogue in Washington DC. When my rabbi says something controversial, the entire congregation quickly learns about it. Members who are offended do not remain silent. They often reprove him. Some threaten to leave unless he apologizes and changes course. A few have left to join other congregations.

Senator Obama's speech moved me, as I suspect it did most listeners. As a onetime speechwriter, I admire its artful construction, rhetorical brilliance, and historical reach. But it left a basic question unanswered: What, if anything, did Obama do in response to what he now acknowledges he heard Reverend Wright say? Did he raise his concerns with other members of the congregation? With Reverend Wright himself? Was he seriously enough disturbed to consider leaving Trinity for another church? By embedding his own life in the larger narrative of race in America, Obama is implicitly saying that these questions don't matter. But they do, because they present a window on his character and help us judge what kind of president he would be.

Like Walt Whitman, Obama presents himself as someone who contains multitudes, someone whose ancestry and life-history embodies the American experience as a whole. There is some truth to this. But it is a suspiciously convenient stance, because it enables him to evade contradictions and avoid hard choices. Successful leaders must know when to draw lines and say no. They must accept that as they do so, they will leave some people out and make some enemies. Many Americans will wonder whether Senator Obama's sincere, burning desire to forge unity out of division leaves him unable or unwilling to acknowledge lines that must not be crossed. And they will wonder how a campaign built on the political centrality of unifying rhetoric can argue that good deeds somehow counterbalance divisive hate speech from a minister in a position to influence the views of thousands of parishioners? Is this really the moral equivalent of the senator's grandmother?

Obama cannot disown Rev. Wright because, he says, "he has been like family to me." Like family, perhaps; but in the last analysis, not family. We do not choose our parents; we do choose our mentors and spiritual advisors. I do not believe Senator Obama yet understands how questionable his choice appears to many Americans of good will, including those who intend--as I do--to vote for him if he becomes the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.

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