By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Some questions: Why did Barack Obama take so long to "reject outright" the harshly critical statements about America made by his minister, Jeremiah Wright, not to mention the praise the same minister lavished on Louis Farrakhan just last November?
How is it possible that Obama did not know about these remarks, when he is a member of Wright's congregation and so close to the man that he likens him to "an old uncle"?
How is it possible that a campaign apparatus that sniffed out Geraldine Ferraro's offensive statement to a local California newspaper (the Daily Breeze, 12th paragraph) did not know that Wright's statements condemning America were all over the Internet and had been cited March 6 by the (reputable) anti-Obama columnist Ronald Kessler? The sermon was also available on YouTube.
In other words, how is it possible that a man who has made judgment the centerpiece of his presidential campaign has shown so little of it in this matter?
One possible answer to these questions is that Obama has learned to rely on a sycophantic media that hears any criticism of him as either (1) racist, (2) vaguely racist or (3) doing the bidding of Hillary and Bill Clinton. You only have to turn your attention to the interview Obama granted MSNBC's fawning Keith Olbermann for an example. Obama was asked whether he had known that Wright had suggested substituting the phrase "God damn America" for "God bless America."
"You know, frankly, I didn't," Obama said. "I wasn't in church during the time when the statements were made."
But had you heard about them? Did your crack campaign staff alert you? And what about Wright's honoring Farrakhan? Had you heard about that? Did you feel any obligation to denounce those remarks -- not Farrakhan's, as you had done, but those of Wright himself? Don't you consider yourself a public figure whom others look to for leadership? Do you think you failed them here?
Olbermann asked none of those questions.
In a certain sense, I am sympathetic toward Obama. When he said of Wright, "Because of his life experience, [he] continues to have a lot of anger and frustration, and will express that in ways that are very different from me and my generation," anyone who knows anything about the black experience in America has to nod.
The 66-year-old Wright was born when blacks were still being lynched, when Jim Crow ruled the South -- and when raw bigotry prevailed virtually everywhere else. He knows a different America from the one familiar to most whites. I can also understand why Farrakhan has a following in black America. He may be a gutter anti-Semite, but he stands up to whites, and within parts of the African American community, he is admired for, among other things, rehabilitating criminals.
So for Obama, Wright posed a dilemma. The minister is well known and respected and, clearly, adored by Obama. His language of resentment, even of hate, has a certain context to Obama. It does not shock. I understand, really I do.
But a presidential candidate is not a mere church member, and he operates in a different context. We examine everything about him for the slightest clue about character. On Wright, Obama has shown a worrisome tic. He has done so also with his relationship with Tony Rezko, the shadowy Chicago political figure. Obama last week submitted to a grilling on this matter by the staff of the Chicago Tribune and was given a clean bill of health. I accept it. But that hardly changes the fact that Obama should never have done business with Rezko in the first place. He concedes that now, but it was still a failure of judgment.
After I wrote in January about Wright's praise for Farrakhan, I was pilloried by Obama supporters who accused me of all manner of things, including insanity. But when I asked some of them what they would have done if their minister had extolled David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan official, or Rabbi Meir Kahane, the late anti-Arab racist, they either rejected the question entirely or simply didn't answer. Don't they think that everyone, particularly a public figure, has an obligation to denounce bigotry, as well as those who praise the bigots?
As I wrote in that column, the manifest abilities and stunning political talents of Barack Obama still recommend him to the presidency. But he has been less than forthright or responsible about Wright. This does not disqualify him from the White House, but it does suggest that if the vaunted red phone rings at 3 a.m., there might be times when he will simply not answer.