by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
During the past weekend, radio and television shows have been playing clips of Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of Barack Obama’s church in Chicago. In the clips, some from more than seven years ago, Wright is seen making several long rants about current affairs, politics, history, race in America and our country’s actions abroad. In the most shocking, Wright condemns America for its treatment of blacks.
Sen. Obama has said such tirades were not the usual Sunday fare when Wright was leading the congregation at Trinity United Church of Christ. Obama has issued several condemnations and denunciations of Wright’s comments in the past few days, including an essay on the Huffington Post, in which he says: “I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy. I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies. I also believe that words that degrade individuals have no place in our public dialogue, whether it’s on the campaign stump or in the pulpit. In sum, I reject outright the statements by Rev. Wright that are at issue.”
But Wright’s comments are not going to go away quickly. By breaking several taboos in American politics – and doing so in a manner that makes Howard Dean’s scream sound like a whisper – Wright’s words have become a weapon that will be used against Obama in the coming contests for the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
The first taboo Wright breaks is calling into question the motivations of both the terrorists of Sept. 11, 2001, and our leaders. Right after Sept. 11, Wright concluded one rant with “we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. … America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”
One simply cannot question the motivation of either the terrorists or our government – because we already know that everything al-Qaida does is because they are evil people and everything the United States does is because we are good people.
Wright’s implication that it was our imperfect foreign policy that led al-Qaida to target us calls into question the actions and motivations of every president going back to Harry Truman. That is simply not the type of introspection that we can collectively handle. And it is certainly not a line of thought with which any candidate for president wants to be associated.
Of course, on the Republican side, Sen. John McCain has his own ranting reverends: The Rev. John Hagee, who has said that Hurricane Katrina was brought on by homosexuality and that the Catholic Church is a godless cult. And the Rev. Rod Parsley, who is calling on Christians to wage war against all Muslims. McCain was not a member of these reverends’ churches. Instead, he courted these religious leaders after they already had made their incendiary comments. But these comments were from white pastors who claim to know the mind of god, not from a black pastor who claims that our country’s history has been experienced differently by non-whites.
And that leads us to the second taboo: suggesting America doesn’t treat all people equally, that we are not really one country. Already right-wing media personalities are fanning out on the talk-shows and blogs to call Wright a “black segregationist” and to suggest Obama has been brainwashed by 20 years of attendance at Wright’s sermons. These are the same media personalities – Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh – who have been alluding to the idea that Obama is either secretly a practicing Muslim or will “revert” to his Islamic “roots” when in the White House. These hosts have been encouraging their callers, who express shock at finding out that he attended an Islamic school as a child (he didn’t) or demand more information about his “Islamic beliefs” before they can vote for him – as if Hannity’s followers are seriously considering voting for any Democrat.
This whisper campaign has been surprisingly effective. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 13 percent of the respondents believe Obama is Muslim, up from 8 percent in December 2007. It remains to be seen if Hannity & Co. can keep the “Obama is a Muslim” theme going at the same time as they try to convince their listeners that Obama has been brainwashed by a radical black Christian preacher. I’m betting they try.
These commentators want to box Obama into a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation in hopes that he flip-flops on the issue, a la John Kerry. Their main goal is to sow as much FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) as they can about the senator. It is a long time until the general election, and FUD has a way of growing if it is unchecked.
In dealing with this issue, Obama can take a lesson from one of Missouri’s former senators: Harry Truman. When Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast died in 1945 while Truman was serving as vice president, Truman attended his funeral and paid his respects to his very flawed friend. He received a lot of criticism in the short term, but in the end he was seen as a man of strong character who stood by his friends regardless of their failings. Likewise, by denouncing Wright’s message while not running from his friendship with the reverend, Obama can show that he will stand strong by his friends despite their failings – or even if they break a taboo or two.