You could see the pain, anger and frustration in Sen. Barack Obama's face this week as, once again, he had to answer questions about his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. What you didn't see or hear from Obama was recognition that he could have prevented Wright from becoming an issue in the first place. But by the time Wright took to the podium at the National Press Club Monday to re-issue his hateful comments about the United States, Obama had already missed his chance. In fact, there were at least three specific occasions on which Obama made the wrong choice.
His first opportunity to avoid being tarnished occurred long ago when the young Barack Obama picked Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ. We know what a younger Obama was thinking when he chose Wright's church because he wrote about it almost 15 years ago in his first memoir, "Dreams from My Father." He describes in vivid detail his first meeting with Wright, whom he quotes as warning him: "Life's not safe for a black man in this country, Barack. Never has been. Probably never will be."
Apparently these words didn't set off warning lights. To the contrary, the young, Ivy-League educated Obama, who had been raised in Hawaii by his white grandparents and attended prep school there, seemed to be seeking a vicarious sense of victimhood in Wright's church. Obama describes, approvingly, a congregation in which "the flow of culture now ran in reverse as well; the former gang-banger, the teenage mother, had their own forms of validation -- claims of greater deprivation, and hence authenticity, their presence in the church providing the lawyer or doctor with an education from the streets." Obama's choice of churches was as much political as it was spiritual, a form of religious "radical chic."
Obama missed his second chance to keep Wright at bay when he decided to run for president. Campaign aides warned Obama that his association with Wright was going to cause him trouble; so, on the eve of his presidential announcement, Obama withdrew his invitation to Wright to give the benediction at the ceremony. If he'd left it at that, Obama might at least have been able later to say that he had grown apart from Wright, or had outgrown him, or had come to see that Wright's message was incompatible with his own. But instead, he invited Wright to come to the announcement but to stay in the basement, out of sight of cameras, where he could pray privately with the senator and his wife. His own actions now make Obama look not only ambivalent about Wright, but duplicitous.
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.