A moment of high drama

Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat; whether you support McCain, Clinton, or Obama; everyone ought to agree that Obama’s candidacy is truly historic. At this moment, Exhibit “A” is the high drama playing out over the past several days between Obama and his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The first black candidate to become a legitimate contender for the presidency was inevitably going to stir up strong feelings about race in America. White voters were bound to wonder, Is he anti-American, like some black politicians? (Or maybe he’s under the influence of anti-American black leaders.) Black voters were bound to wonder, Will he betray the black community in order to make his candidacy palatable to white people?

Meanwhile, political opponents were bound to stir the pot and make the racial tensions as difficult as possible for Obama to navigate. I think it’s reprehensible that a fellow Democrat has jumped onto the bandwagon, but Obama was inevitably going to weather this storm on route to the presidency.

It’s not personal to Obama:  the first black candidate who was a legitimate contender was going to be a catalyst for racial tensions to boil over. Hence the potency of the Wright issue. Andrew Sullivan expresses it perfectly:  “The only way past this is through it.”

At the worst possible time for Obama — after the discouraging loss in Pennsylvania; less than two weeks before crucial primaries in North Carolina and Indiana — Wright has embarked on a public relations campaign. Initially Wright was conciliatory; but his campaign quickly became a self-justifying, finger-pointing circus act in which Wright reiterated many of his most indefensible remarks. Josh Marshall has aptly summarized it as a “kick Obama in the groin-athon.”

Yesterday, Obama decided that enough is enough.

“The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago. His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate, and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church.

They certainly don’t portray accurately my values and beliefs. And if Reverend Wright thinks that that’s political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn’t know me very well. And based on his remarks yesterday, well, I may not know him as well as I thought, either. …

We started this campaign with the idea that the problems that we face as a country are too great to continue to be divided, that in fact all across America people are hungry to get out of the old, divisive politics of the past. … And the reason our campaign has been so successful is because we have moved beyond these old arguments.

What we saw yesterday out of Reverend Wright was a resurfacing and, I believe, an exploitation of those old divisions. Whatever his intentions, that was the result. It is antithetical to our campaign. It is antithetical to what I am about. It is not what I think America stands for.

And I want to be very clear that, moving forward, Reverend Wright does not speak for me. He does not speak for our campaign. I cannot prevent him from continuing to make these outrageous remarks, but what I do want him to be very clear about, as well as all of you and the American people, is that when I say that I find these comments appalling, I mean it.

It contradicts everything that I am about and who I am. And anybody who has worked with me, who knows my life, who has read my books, who has seen what this campaign’s about, I think, will understand that it is completely opposed to what I stand for and where I want to take this country.

Whether or not you think Obama’s remarks are sufficient, I think we should pause to recognize that this is a moment of high drama in the astonishing history of the United States of America.

Serious racial divisions exist, out of sight but always ready to boil over at a time of crisis. It’s easy to be cynical about the political process, but it’s a relatively safe forum in which to address such tensions. Obama’s campaign has the potential to be cathartic with minimal risk that it will lead to violence.

For my part, I think Obama has handled the whole controversy judiciously. Critics will say that he was slow to respond. But remember, Obama is performing a high wire act here! If he had been too quick to disown Rev. Wright, the black community would have seen him as a sellout. If he had been unwilling to disown Rev. Wright, even after the latest outrages, white Americans would have felt that Obama was unwilling or unable to stand up for America against its detractors.

There is no perfect time to disown a spiritual father figure. But I believe this was the right time to do it:  and Obama seized the opportunity masterfully.

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