In his hour of political need, Barack Obama went to his base -- the media. He delivered a speech about the nation's racial divisions that couldn't possibly get anything but lavish praise from the press, burying for now the controversy over his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
A gifted writer, Obama can plumb depths most politicians can't, and he spoke truths about the state of race relations in America in an unusually frank and subtle way. But Obama's speech, like his congregation at Trinity United Church of Christ that he described so lyrically, contains multitudes. Swaddled in all the high-mindedness was rhetorical sleight of hand about the Rev. Wright.
Ultimately, he sought to justify his relationship to a pastor who believes the U.S. government spread the AIDS virus and has called on God to "damn America." This makes comparisons, say, to Lincoln's "House Divided" address perverse. Lincoln delivered a tightly argued speech elevated to greatness by its moral discernment and purpose. For all its eloquence, Obama's speech didn't hang together logically and had at its core a moral relativism explaining away Rev. Wright's hatreds.
Obama explicitly denied that he was excusing Wright's views, even as he did it in exceptionally high-toned sophistry. The reason Obama had to give a 38-minute speech is that he was incapable of saying four unadorned words, "I made a mistake." He could have said long ago that his gratitude to Wright for bringing him to Christianity and his bond with the church community blinded him to Wright's lies about America and hateful rants. Most of the public would have understood, and forgiven him.
Obama did rap Wright on the knuckles. He said Wright's videotaped ravings "expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country -- a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America." Well, of course they did. Seeing racism as endemic and America as unredeemably corrupt is central to the Rev. Wright's black liberation theology; indeed, it would be a passable definition of it.
In prior interviews, Obama implied that he had never heard the Rev. Wright say anything untoward, but in the speech he admitted he heard "remarks that could be considered controversial." On CNN, he said those remarks had to do with things like "infidelity and family life," as if the Rev. Wright never aired his poisonous worldview except in a couple of videotaped sermons acquired by ABC News. This is dubious, which is probably why Obama's campaign is resisting media requests for dates when he attended services.
Obama made two arguments for why he couldn't reject the Rev. Wright. One was that the Rev. Wright lived through the era of segregation. So did many others. Surely, there are plenty of black pastors in the country who have suffered more than Wright without letting a left-wing racialist ideology taint their Christian message of love and mercy, let alone telling paranoid lies from the pulpit.
The other was he "can no more disown him than I can disown the black community." This was a poetic simulacrum of profundity. Does that mean Obama can reject no black man or woman because it would constitute rejecting the black community? Did the Hillary Clinton campaign reject the Italian-American community when it rejected Geraldine Ferraro?
In the end, Obama made the case for the respectability of a man who is a hater -- and did it, amazingly enough, in a speech devoted to ending divisiveness. At one moment, Obama said we needed a searching national dialogue about race; at another, he suggested we needed to get beyond all that and unite around a cliched left-wing agenda of anti-corporatism. But whatever Obama is advocating at a given moment, his solution is always himself in his glorious personhood, the salve to the country's ills.
For now, Obama's speech worked. But questions about his judgment and candor will linger.