It's a mistake to try to pigeonhole Barack Obama. He is too smart and too agile to succumb to easy categorization. But the candidate's eloquence is often more of a curtain than a window to his soul -- and one is left to wonder where his heart truly lies. As George Burns said of acting, "Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you've got it made."
Discussing his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who asked God to "damn" America, who called this country the "No. 1 killer in the world," Obama's defense was subtle. Oh yes, he agreed, the rhetoric is "divisive at a time when we need unity" and reflects "profoundly distorted views of this country" that "rightly offend both white and black." But there's so much more to the man. He serves his community, housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, serving those with HIV/AIDS, and so forth. He brought Obama to Christianity. And Obama can no more "disown him than he can disown the black community" and no more disown him than he can disown his own white grandmother.
Obama's white grandmother, according to the account in "Dreams from My Father," had once flinched before a black man on a public bus -- hoping that her husband would drive her to work the following day so that she could avoid him. On other occasions, he recounts, she had uttered "racial or ethnic stereotypes" that made Obama "cringe."
This is a false equivalence. In the first place, what pastor or congregational leader does not minister to the poor and unfortunate? Pastoral work in the community is the norm, not the exception. One can say the same of Louis Farrakhan and Hamas for that matter. It doesn't begin to excuse or justify stoking the flames of hatred and bitterness that Wright so flagrantly fired.
And wasn't it a bit of a cheap shot to take public aim at grandmother, who sacrificed so much for Obama, who served as his surrogate mother during his high school years? If she used racial and ethnic stereotypes, that was wrong. But the episode about the bus, as related in his book, is hardly a damning indictment of a secret racist. After Obama's grandmother confessed to having been harassed by an aggressive panhandler, Obama writes:
"He (Obama's grandfather) turned around and I saw now that he was shaking. 'It is a big deal. It's a big deal to me. She's been bothered by men before. You know why she's so scared this time? I'll tell you why. Before you came in she told me the fella was black.' He whispered the word. 'That's the real reason she's bothered. And I just don't think that's right.'
"It was like a fist to my stomach, and I wobbled to maintain my composure."
I don't claim to know Obama's grandmother and am in no position to judge her racial sentiments. But it does seem to an outsider that Obama's judgment upon his grandmother is as harsh as his tolerance of Wright is benign. It isn't as if he was raised in Trinity Baptist Church. He chose it as an adult. He chose those sermons he now calls "incendiary" and "inexcusable." He says now that Wright misses the dynamism of American society, yet when it came time to decide where his daughters would attend church, he chose Trinity, where they would "learn" that the U.S. government concocted the AIDS virus to wipe out the African-American population, that the U.S. would "plant" WMDs in Iraq, and that blacks harming other blacks are "fighting the wrong enemy." A beautifully delivered speech cannot overcome that history.
The solution, Obama asserts, to racial divisiveness, is to come together and say "Not this time." This time "we want to talk about "the crumbling schools ... to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem." This time, in other words, we can demonstrate our racial bona fides by, you guessed it, voting for Obama for president.
Barack is the new kid on the block, but surely he can recall the campaign of 2000. One of the candidates that year made education reform a keystone of his effort, more or less explicitly aiming at minority kids. He called his package No Child Left Behind and denounced the "soft bigotry of low expectations." One doesn't expect Obama, a very liberal Democrat, to endorse George W. Bush's programs. But it would be nice if he were not suggesting that by voting for something very similar, we are taking a bold step toward racial reconciliation and universal love.