In a speech prompted by extensive media coverage of the divisive, racially-tinged sermons of his pastor and ‘spiritual mentor’ of the last twenty years, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama today attempted to address concerns over his stance on issues, including race and patriotism, that have dogged his campaign for the last week.
Speaking from the National Constitution Centre in Philadelphia, Senator Obama’s words yesterday broadened the context of the debate beyond the firestorm surrounding Reverend Wright’s comments alone and instead focused on the subject of race in America.
It was both a highly personal and, often times, enlightening bit of political theatre.
During the 45-minute long, 5.000 word plus address, Obama wore many hats.
At times he was a preacher and historian, while at others he was a college lecturer and philosopher.
And still at others he was a political candidate making up lost ground.
Consequently, any judgement about the effectiveness of the speech must necessarily be examined in the context of which hat the candidate was wearing as he spoke.
In terms of telling his personal story and giving voters a view of the complexities of the richly diverse experience from which he has come, Barack Obama succeeded spectacularly.
He talked of being the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother in Kansas.
Similarly he spoke of the contrasts and similarities between his white grandmother and his adopted ‘father figure,’ the controversial Jeremiah Wright.
Painting himself as a product of this ingredient rich melting pot, Obama uniquely positioned himself to do the kind of healing and unifying that has been the very foundation of his campaign.
Perhaps even more effective was the way in which Senator Obama addressed the racial divide that exists in America on the topic of religion.
The distinction that the Senator from Illinois sought to draw with some success was that blacks and whites worship in different ways.
Jeremiah Wright preaches the self-affirming, pro-black liberation theology that, however shocking, is not all that uncommon in a great many black churches across America.
Sermons like Wright’s feed into a historical mistrust of mainstream society that has existed among African-Americans since the time of slavery.
That is not to say that these views are right, decent or in any way acceptable, but merely to suggest that Senator Obama rightly shined a spotlight on the ongoing racial issues that exist at the heart and soul of America.
In order to overcome these problems, we must first acknowledge that they are real and Barack Obama did that in his address from Philadelphia this morning, in the process offering a wake-up call to all Americans.
Another area in which Obama’s address scored major points can be found in the eloquence with which the Senator framed his arguments on race, which was to be expected.
After all, as one commentator on CNN said earlier today “Barack Obama could give a speech at breakfast.”
Using no speech writer, Barack Obama spoke from the heart making he kind of appeal that resonates with voters.
So, wearing the hat of an orator, Obama shined once again.
In fact it was only when he donned the hat of political candidate that Barack Obama’s performance yesterday fell short.
Going into the speech, Obama needed to firmly address the issue of his ties to Reverend Jeremiah Wright and his links to Trinity United Church of Christ, and he didn’t do this.
While he again forcefully condemned remarks by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, he did not definitively quash concerns about his relationship with Reverend Wright and the church he has been a member of for more than two decades.
This was quite simply Barack Obama’s moment to take action and he breezed by it.
Further, many are likely to find that Senator Obama’s attempts to justify Wright’s behaviour, and words in today’s speech, rang hollow.
Barack Obama with Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
At one point, Barack Obama tried to liken racist attitudes of his white grandmother to those of Reverend Wright, which is anything but a fair comparison.
“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community,” Obama said of Wright.
“I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street.”
Obama’s grandmother is his flesh and blood, a woman to whom his connection can never be severed.
Jeremiah Wright on the other hand, is a man that Barack Obama chose as his spiritual adviser as an adult fully responsible for the import of his choices.
The two can hardly be equivocated.
Similarly, Obama’s fanning of the flames of the Ferraro controversy seemed to diminish the gravitas of a speech that otherwise took the high ground politically and socially.
The fact is, Geraldine Ferraro made an ill-advised singular comment after a history of being a Democratic trailblazer.
Ferraro’s words, however silly or misplaced, bear scant resemblance to the hate-mongering litany of sermons given by Reverend Wright and, for all intents and purposes, condoned (at least publically) by Senator Obama up until this point.
Moreover, and perhaps most important of all, Barack Obama failed to distance himself from the church, whose new minister, Reverend Otis Moss Jr, this past weekend stood by Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s words and claimed that his church was being ‘vilified’ by the media.
In no way, shape, form or fashion did the Senator even attempt to explain how he could continue to attend and raise his children in a church where race-baiting words, liberally sprinkled with the so-called blessing of the bible, were regularly spewed on Sunday mornings.
In no way did Barack Obama explain how he could support Trinity United Church of Christ’s message with a $22,000 (£11,000) contribution in 2006.
And in no way did Senator Obama explain how he could claim as a spiritual adviser a man who would honour anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan, as a man who “truly epitomised greatness.”
It’s obvious that Senator Obama both needed and wanted to shift the media’s focus on his campaign with his words from the City of Brotherly Love, but he may have instead only created more questions.
For all the magic of his speech, Senator Obama really accomplished little this morning beyond reminding voters that race is still an issue in America.
Voters concerned about Barack Obama’s true political beliefs about race can take heart in the oratorical masterclass on the subject the Senator gave, but they may find difficulty in reconciling what he said with his subsequent actions.
With inconsistencies swirling around about the extent of Barack Obama’s connections to Tony Rezko, Donnie McClurkin and Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the question of the day for the Democratic frontrunner was credibility, and on that score, we are left with a gigantic question mark.
The Obama campaign needed a homerun on the credibility issue in order to get back to focusing on the social and political issues facing the American people, but unfortunately, the issue of Reverend Jeremiah Wright will likely linger as a distraction long after today.
While Barack Obama delivered a marvellous missive on race to America aimed at elevating the discourse of the campaign, he succeeded wearing all the wrong hats.
That may soon be the reason his campaign goes out of fashion with a significant portion of the remaining Democratic voters and superdelegates he must win over in order to secure the nomination.
Bottom line: Barack Obama fervently preached to the choir, but not to those waiting to be converted. So his words basically resulted in a draw. Great speech, but no prize.
Duane Wells © 2008 GayWired.com; All Rights Reserved.