My instant reaction to what may have been the most important speech of Obama’s candidacy is that it was excellent. Not, for once, because it was all that well delivered. Especially at the beginning, he seemed not just calm and collected, as usual, but downright subdued. He got more comfortable as he went on, but the whole thing felt more like a statement announced under some duress (which I suppose it was) than a speech he was ever keen to deliver. On the substance, though, my feeling is that he hit every target. Perhaps the association with Wright will still prove to be a net negative. We will find out in due course. But I thought Obama dealt with the issues so well that, at least for me, the whole fuss over Wright might turn out to work to his advantage.
In my previous post on the Wright affair I called Obama’s first line on the matter–”I wasn’t present when he said those things”–a transparent evasion. I was very glad to see no trace of that in the speech:
I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.
Rather than pretending he was unaware of Wright’s views, he confronted them:
But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.
As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.
That seems to me exactly right. But having criticised his pastor so frontally, Obama then had to explain why he nonetheless has remained a member of his church and evidently holds the man in such high regard. He did this too–first in a very personal way, but then in an explanation that broadened out to touch on the main themes of his campaign.