If Obama continued to base his defense on history, he will just wade into deeper trouble. The “I wasn’t there; I didn’t hear him” defense just invites journalists to interview thousands of members of the congregation to find one who sat next to Obama during one of Wright’s racist and anti-American sermons. Just as John Kerry let his candidacy be hostage to the memories of every GI who served alongside him in Vietnam, so Obama will tie his to the recollections of his co-parishioners.
Nor will Obama solve his Wright problem by subtly distancing himself from his pastor and condemning his views, in general, as “offensive” or “not representative of my campaign.”
Rather, he needs to seize the opportunity Wright presents and rebut the pastor’s views, point by point — as he began to do Tuesday — and, in the process, define himself and his candidacy. He needs to rebut all of the spurious points Wright raised in his now-famous “chickens coming home to roost” sermon and speak up for America, our record and our values. He needs to explain why we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — to save millions of American and Japanese lives, which would have been lost in an invasion. He should defend our support of Israel and take issue with Wright’s characterization of our backing for its efforts to protect itself as “terrorism.” He needs to speak out about America’s moral role in the world and differ sharply and publicly with Wright’s worldview.
By playing off Wright, he can recapture his identity as the personification of white hopes for a color-blind politics rather than white fears of anti-American and anti-white public figures.
The key to surviving the Wright challenge does not lie in the history of Obama’s 20-year involvement with his church. That story is a quagmire from which he will have difficulty extricating himself. The answer is, rather, to speak out in the here and now against Wright’s weekend comments in Washington and, thereby, tell us who he is and in what he believes.