Who is Barack Obama? The truth is that neither Sen. Obama's supporters nor opponents can answer that question. We know he is bright, eloquent and charismatic. But if he were elected president of the United States, he would be the least known man to be elected in modern American history, perhaps in all of American history.
That is why the remarks and views of those closest to Sen. Obama take on much more significance than the remarks and views of the people closest to Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Whether we like or dislike either of those two candidates, we have every reason to believe we know them.
The people closest to Sen. Obama -- and by his own account the two greatest living influences on his thinking -- are his wife Michelle and his pastor, Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. And each of them has made comments about America that could dissuade Americans from voting for Sen. Obama at least until they can get to know him better.
On Feb. 18, in Milwaukee, Wis., Michelle Obama announced, "For the first time in my adult life I am proud to be an American." Anyone in public life must be given slack regarding comments they later regret. But on the same day in another speech in Madison, Wis., Mrs. Obama said virtually the same thing: "For the first time in my adult lifetime I am really proud to be an American."
Sen. Obama later explained his wife's remarks this way: "What she meant was, this is the first time that she's been proud of the politics of America."
I do not believe that Sen. Obama's explanation is valid. I think Mrs. Obama said what she meant and meant what she said. But even if Sen. Obama's reformulation of his wife's remarks is valid, the fact remains that the closest person in the world to Barack Obama has never been proud of the politics of America, that it took her husband's primary wins to change a lifelong lack of pride in anything about America's political life. That's troubling on its own -- for his and her contempt for American politics. And it is even more troubling for its narcissism -- do Sen. Obama and his wife believe that only his success has made American politics worthy of pride?
We are therefore confronted with either a contempt for America -- if the original statement reflects Michelle Obama's thinking -- or some real narcissism on the part of both Sen. and Mrs. Obama. That narcissism is easily demonstrated. Just imagine if Hillary Clinton or John McCain had said they supported their spouse's view that until their primary victories, they had never been proud of their country's politics. Either of them would have looked foolish before the American people. That is why many believe Sen. Obama has been getting a relatively free ride in the American media, which largely adore him.
But it gets worse. The other closest person in Sen. Obama's life, the man whom the senator calls his mentor, the man who married Barack and Michelle Obama, who baptized his daughters, who inspired the title of his book "The Audacity of Hope," and whose church Sen. Obama has been attending for 20 years, has been a voice of anti-white racism and anti-American venom. In a widely viewed sermon from 2003, the Rev. Wright shouted from his pulpit, among other things:
"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."
He then went on to blame America for 9/11 since America has been engaged in state terrorism that has murdered far more innocents than were killed in America on 9/11. We should recall that when some conservative Christian leaders suggested that America had in some ways brought on 9/11 by its sins, these people were read the riot act by the mainstream media.
According to the Associated Press, Wright "also gave a sermon in December comparing Obama to Jesus, promoting his candidacy and criticizing his rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton. 'Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people,' Wright told a cheering congregation. 'Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a nigger.'"
Sen. Obama says he was not present when the Rev. Wright said these things.
Maybe so. But it is hard to believe that Sen. Obama has never heard such things from his Afro-centric minister. Additionally, one must ask why a man raised entirely by a white mother and white grandparents after being abandoned as a small child by his black father would choose to identify so fully with such a pastor. Coupled with his wife's remarks, fair-minded people -- whether Democrat or Republican -- may well conclude that until we know more about who Sen. Barack Obama is, he ought not be the Democrats' candidate for president of the United States. His two greatest living influences have raised red flags.
In fact, if Shelby Steele (who also has a white mother and black father) is right, we should not only be waiting until we better know who Barack Obama is. We probably need to wait until Barack Obama better knows who he is.