But Obama's greatest missed opportunity to break with Wright came after Wright's crazy rants first hit the airwaves in March. Instead of denouncing Wright in his famous Philadelphia speech, again Obama tried to have it both ways: he renounced Wright's words, but not the man. "I can no more disown him," Obama said, "than I can my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."
But Obama's comparison of a race-baiter who spewed hatred from the pulpit with his elderly grandmother who had voiced her fears in private was not only morally asymmetrical, it was dishonest. Once more, the candidate's first memoir is revealing. In that version, a younger Obama explained his grandmother's fears by describing an actual incident that provoked them: While she was waiting for the bus to go to work early one morning, a black man tried to shake her down for money. She gave him some, but he kept demanding more. "If the bus hadn't come, I think he might have hit me over the head," Obama says she told him.
Obama should have used this story in his speech on race to talk about the legitimate fear that crime evokes. Instead, he gave short shrift to his grandmother, while engaging in an extended apologia on the historical roots of Wright's rage in slavery and Jim Crow.
By the time Obama finally got around to denouncing Wright, not just his words, it was too little, too late. The Wright controversy had revealed a major character flaw in a candidate whose entire appeal has been based on character.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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