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Tackling a Sensitive Topic at a Sensitive Moment, for Disparate Audiences

By Alec MacGillis and Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Kay Farley, a retired high school teacher in Denver, decided to support Barack Obama for president because she thought the senator from Illinois had a better chance of being elected than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). That confidence was shaken last week when incendiary excerpts of sermons by Obama's longtime pastor dominated the airwaves.

So Farley had one question in mind when she watched on television as Obama spoke in Philadelphia yesterday: Could the candidate whose campaign is premised on lifting the country past its divisions elevate himself above the rift exposed by his former minister?

The speech wowed her. But she recognized in it the constraints Obama faced in condemning the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and wondered whether those alienated by Wright's words would be satisfied.

"He was between the devil and deep blue sea, and he did a good job, but I don't know who is convinced or unconvinced," she said. Of the speech's concluding call for the country to move beyond such divisive debates and confront its common problems, she said: "Would that that were true. Saying it doesn't necessarily make it so."

As skilled an orator as Obama is, he has faced few moments as fraught as yesterday's. The clips of his longtime spiritual mentor declaring "God damn America" for its mistreatment of blacks and saying that the country had provoked the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks threatened to undermine Obama's promise to bind up racial and political fissures.

Obama needed to address several audiences with the speech: undecided white voters in Pennsylvania, whose Rust Belt cousins Obama struggled to win over in Ohio even before the Wright controversy; African Americans aggrieved by the opprobrium being heaped on Wright; and staunch supporters such as Farley who needed reassurance about their candidate.

His solution was to grapple broadly with the nation's racial problem, beginning with slavery and Jim Crow and the inequities they produced, but to also acknowledge the roots of resentment among struggling whites who "don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race." He admitted a fundamental disagreement with Wright that went beyond the angry sound bites, saying the minister had made a "profound mistake" in doubting that the United States could be redeemed over time.

He presented himself -- the son of a black African and white American, whose own ancestors did not suffer Southern slavery -- as uniquely able to rise above the fray. And he called on both sides to rise above as well, urging blacks to resist falling into "despair or cynicism" and whites to recognize that the legacy of discrimination is "real and must be addressed." "We can tackle race only as spectacle," he said, or "we can come together and say, 'Not this time.' "

The speech drew praise across the political spectrum, though some on the right questioned Obama's assertion that his liberal agenda could unite different races. But many who heard the speech wondered whether it would be enough to calm the anger generated by the Wright videos. Gerald Shuster, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, found the speech "stylistically persuasive" but thought Obama should have moved aggressively to distance himself from Wright months ago, when reports of his harsher sermons first surfaced. "The rhetoric is convincing, but it's just coming too late," he said.

Martin Medhurst, an expert in rhetoric at Baylor University, was struck by the religious intonations as well as the echoes of John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech on his Catholicism, particularly the summons to overcome divisions to confront common threats.

Will yesterday's speech be remembered along with Kennedy's? "If Obama goes on to win the presidency, it will," Medhurst said. "If he wins the presidency, this will be seen as a very important speech."

Attending the speech at Constitution Hall was Bill Hamilton, president of the Teamsters Joint Council 53 in Pennsylvania, whose union has endorsed Obama and has been faced with the challenge of selling him to a blue-collar membership that has been made only more skeptical by Wright's remarks. "Pennsylvania is a very conservative-type state, and the thinking there is very pro-American, so those type of comments could certainly have a negative impact," he said.

But he thought the speech would help repair the damage. "He didn't shirk any of the issues -- he attacked them head-on," he said. The speech "will shore up what we can do to help him and say to people, 'This guy is for real.' "

Watching from the District was Ira Foreman, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, who is well aware of the anxiety Wright's statements against Israel have provoked in some Jews. "He addressed a lot of the issues that are in the back of people's minds," he said. "I'm confident that when it comes down to November, Democrats will retain a vast majority of Jewish voters whether our candidate is Clinton or Obama."

Also reassured were members of the black church community, who worried after Obama's initial denunciations last week that he had forgotten -- or, worse, ignored -- what drew him to Wright. J. Alfred Smith, the senior pastor at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif., and a friend of Wright's, clapped in his living room as Obama lauded Wright for "housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day-care services and scholarships and prison ministries."

"There's a lot of anger, but Reverend Wright is a human being, and Obama finally showed that," he said. "All of us from that generation had to go around through the back door, had to ride in the segregated portion of the train. That anger can keep us marred down in the mud, or it can be creatively used. Brother Obama has called for our higher selves to rule over our animalistic selves."

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