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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

He hit a home run. With two men on. It would have been a grand slam if there had been some way to push past and leave behind the rantings of Jeremiah Wright, but he’s going to be front and center in the presidential campaign if and when Obama gets the nomination. More on the Reverend in a minute.

It was a man of presidential caliber who wrote and delivered that speech. Watching him, I could believe that I was watching a president - someone who knows what is needed to lead this country toward - as he put it - a more perfect union - and who has what it takes to do just that. I can’t think of any speech by any president in my lifetime that impressed me as this speech did. It was cerebral, yet as one pundit put it, you could tell that he was speaking from the heart and that you could believe what he was saying. It was, I think telling that in the same news cycle, we saw John McCain in Jordan, looking old and tired and mouthing inanities about it being "well known" that al Qaeda was moving from Iraq to Iran for training, after which they were re-entering Iraq to continue to wage war against us. This is a man who claims to have superior foreign policy and national security experience and will run on those themes against the Democratic nominee, but it took a whisper in his ear from Republicrat Joe Lieberman to get him to correct himself and apologize - saying that it was "extremists" being trained in Iran - not al Qaeda. Shades of Nancy Reagan whispering in her husband’s ear so he could say "we’re doing the best we can" in response to a reporter’s shouted question.

The negative reaction from the extremists on the right was as expected, but it was heartening to see many people who are not supporting Obama, praise both him and the speech. Evan perennial critic John Kass of the Chicago Tribune agreed with me, saying that "As he spoke, I saw him as the next president of the United States and thought of voters feeling the same." Yes indeed John. But Kass also said that the speech wasn’t as much about race as it was about the words of Jeremiah Wright - and here I disagree. It was about both - in the sense that the Reverend’s inflammatory words are a reflection of the problems of race in this country that we have yet to face in the way that Obama is now asking us to face them.

I suppose it’s easy to look at Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods and Condoleezza Rice and a host of other rich and successful African Americans who seem to transcend race - and fool ourselves into believing the race problems of the past are indeed of the past and that it’s time for blacks to stop blaming white society for their ills. Would that it was that simple. Stop and think. The holocaust in Europe was already over while parts of this nation sill had laws on the books that relegated black skinned people to second class citizenship. It’s hard - I think maybe impossible - for a white skinned Caucasian to imagine what that must have been like, but it’s not hard to imagine how it is still rooted in the souls of those blacks who came of age and lived through that period of our history that ended just a few years ago.

When my oldest child was 2 ½, I and my family went to Miami for a vacation. We went by car and the memory of that trip through the south is burned deeply into my soul as though it took place last week. I will never forget the shock and shame I felt as we stopped along the way for food and drink at a roadside snack shop or restaurant where black people were waiting in line to be served - some of them family groups like ours - only to have them step aside so that we could be served first. I didn’t understand it and I tried to keep my proper place in line - but the response of the subservient blacks was almost one of panic. No way were they going to let it look like they wanted to be served before a white person!! Yes, that was a long time ago, but just think of one of those blacks being a small child who might today be Jeremiah Wright - or someone like him, and you get a better idea of what Obama was trying to say.

I found the speech inspirational as did most people that I’ve exchanged views with since yesterday. But I also found it "Presidential" - far superior in content and meaning than any speech ever given by Bush or Clinton or Bush senior. He spoke to us as adults - without the use of nonsensical hyperbole or any other kind of political gobbledygook. What a joy it will be to have this man lead and interact with us for the next eight years.

If there was anything he could have done better in his speech, it would have been to spend more time telling us about Reverend Wright. Presumably, away from the pulpit, the man doesn’t act like a raving lunatic. For instance, if he had said - or been able to show that out of hundreds of sermons that Wright has given over the years - it is only the two or three that have been circulating that contained the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that makes him look like an enemy of the state - and that his average sermon, though provocative, was no more so than you would find in just about any black church anywhere in the country on a Sunday morning. He showed loyalty in not disowning his pastor, but if all we get to see of him are those endless loops of invective, it is bound to be the subject of negative ads throughout the campaign and that will be an unfortunate distraction. Some pundits are already saying that it could be enough to derail Obama’s candidacy. Perhaps in future responses to such attacks which most assuredly will come, he will be able to show that there is more to the man than the impression we get from those video loops. He might even persuade Wright to be interviewed by a neutral newsman - if one can be found. Then again, that could make a bad situation worse. On the Hannity an Colmes show a few nights ago, they played part of an "interview" that he gave to that program in 2007. I put the word "interview" in quotes because the segment that they showed consisted of Hannity trying to ask questions and Wright responding with questions of his own about Hannity’s knowledge of Liberation Theology and the works of James Cone. As an interview, it was a disaster.

But overall, I think that being forced into having to confront the problems caused by his former pastor’s frightening rhetoric will result in a net plus. Very few people who were for Obama before these tapes began circulating will be negatively influenced by them - after all it’s Obama running for president, not his former pastor - but I believe that a large number of people who weren’t sure of Obama up to now, will be influenced positively by a speech that I think will be remembered as a seminal moment in our nation’s history.