Jonah Goldberg

It was, in parts, a lovely speech. It was far better than I expected, and I am not one to underestimate Barack Obama’s skill at constructing cathedrals with his words.

Rhetorically, his address in Philadelphia represented a historic achievement. The Democratic front-runner, the first viable black presidential candidate, showed that a liberal can, in fact, abandon the calcified talking points and buzzwords of racial discourse that have slowed progress. Democratic politicians have carried the baggage of black victimology and white guilt for generations. Whenever Republican candidates have tried to advance our politics without such baggage, Democrats have yelled, “Here, catch,” and crushed them with it.

This, for me, was the thrilling part of Obama’s speech: For a moment, he put down the albatross.

He sang the praises of the Founding Fathers and the implicit promise they made to all Americans, not just to white men. He denounced his former pastor’s denigration of the “greatness and the goodness of our nation.” He partially acknowledged the moral legitimacy of what he too narrowly calls the American “immigrant experience,” which rejects the idea that a man today is responsible for the sins of others long dead. He recognized that the black community is too quick to blame outside forces for its own problems. He blamed the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s biliousness on an antiquated worldview enmeshed in a “static” view of this wonderfully fluid nation.

Yes, he refused to fully denounce Wright, but he managed to seem like he was grounding his refusal in love and personal loyalty while still making it clear that Wright’s words were unacceptable. In effect, he says he loves the sinner but hates the sin. In this age where politicians throw their inconvenient passengers under the bus after the first pothole, this was refreshing even if it was intellectually wanting.

In short, there was wonderful stuff to be found in Obama’s address. You can be sure the mainstream press and the Democratic faithful will leap at the opportunity to coronate Obama for his statesmanship and brilliance the way a man dying of thirst plunges into the cool water of an oasis. The Wright story is over for everybody but the so-called forces of divisiveness

But oases can reveal themselves to be mirages.

Obama proved he’s capable of dropping the baggage of yesteryear. But he also proved he’s even more adept at picking it back up.

“I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork,” Obama said, seeming to want credit for his political bravery. “We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue. ... But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.”

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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