Politics

Q. What 2008/2012 Candidate Was Plagued by Association With a Racist, Anti-Semitic Conspiracy Theorist?

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How come only white men have walked on the moon, even though a black man invented moonwalking?

A. Barack Obama, of course, as Charles C. Johnson recalls with this wistful look back at Rev. Jeremiah Wright in the American Spectator

In sermon after sermon, Wright's radical black nationalist ideas were clearly and emphatically stated. They were not an aberration, but the focal point of Pastor Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Obama was an active member for 20 years.

Nor has Wright renounced any of his anti-Americanism. In a sermon last September 16 marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11 entitled, "The Day of Jerusalem's Fall," Wright seemed to celebrate white America's comeuppance. "We bombed Hiroshima. We bombed Nagasaki. And we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon–and we never batted an eye!" Wright preached. "We supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black south Africans and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards." He closed, invoking Malcolm X's statement about the assassination of J.F.K, "America's chickens! Coming home! To roost!" White America, he was saying, had gotten its just deserts.

Candidate Obama tried to distance himself from Wright's more damning comments. But, crucially, he didn't disown the pastor himself. In fact, in his rise to political fame, he had made Wright's sermons his own, drawing on Wright's "Audacity to Hope" sermon and appropriating its theme for his political coming-out speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. He even borrowed the sermon's title for his second autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, in a bid to get Wright and other black churches to support his candidacy.

The question is why Barack Obama, raised without any faith at all, chose one of the most incendiary preachers in Black America to preach the word of God to him. 

Johnson does not mention the resurrected umbrage over the Ron Paul Freedom Report, so it's not clear why the time is ripe to revisit the Wright issue. My memories of this episode have all faded except two: The first was a Conan O'Brien greenscreen interview bit of which the picture at right, from a busted Hulu link, is all that survives. The second, which I recall even less clearly, was Obama's "More Perfect Union" speech, which received wide praise (yes, that was Charles Murray calling it "flat out brilliant–rhetorically, but also in capturing a lot of nuance about race in America") and which Johnson accurately describes as "much celebrated and quickly forgotten."

Johnson uses the Wright association to revive the case that Obama is more radical than his speeches (and more important, his three-year tenure as president) might indicate. I never believed Obama was the bomb-throwing radical his detractors claim. His time in office has if anything demonstrated Thaddeus Russell's thesis that Obama is an earnest establishmentarian, a strong supporter of the heavily regulated yet lawless empire that Republicans and Democrats both seem comfortable with. 

I'd doubt Jeremiah Wright will get much attention in the 2012 campaign, for the same reason I don't expect the Ron Paul newsletter issue to have much traction beyond the chattering classes. Both matters were thoroughly hashed out in 2008, and scandals tend not to get fresher over 48 months. Just ask anybody except Dan Rather how much juice George W. Bush's military record had when the Kerry campaign tried to make an issue of it in 2004 – ignoring the fact that voters had heard it all four years earlier but had nevertheless handed Bush a large popular minority and an electoral majority. 

It would be commonplace to say people with unsavory racialist ideas and associations have been elected president since the founding of the republic. It would be novel to say we were still electing such people as recently as 2008, but Johnson's follow-up shows that it is true. For me the most disturbing thing about the newsletter affair is that a man with a habit of signing documents he hasn't read is trying to win a job where your most important (constitutionally valid) power is signing and vetoing legislation.

That of course is not what's at issue in the current newsletter shaming. But Obama's quickly forgotten speech did raise one point worth remembering: If we want to live free of racist friends and bigoted loved ones in these United States, most of us will have to start expelling members of our own families.