March 18 – not an historic day, usually. In 1229, on March 18, Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor at the time, declared himself King of Jerusalem, during the Sixth Crusade if you’re counting – we’re still dealing with that in some ways. On March 18, 1959, President Eisenhower signed that bill into law allowing for Hawaiian statehood – not bad. March 18 also has its birthdays – Grover Cleveland (1937), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844), John Updike (1932) and Charley Pride (1938), and so on. But it’s a dud day really – no one shouts out Remember March 18! Why would they?
Still, some days you do witness history, even if from a distance – you know, events that change things. Some of us remember where we were when we heard Kennedy had been shot, and when we heard he died, and remember seeing Jack Ruby shoot Osward dead – live on television, oddly enough. We remember where we were when we heard Martin Luther King had been assassinated, and we watched the riots that followed, just as we remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard Bobby Kennedy had been gunned down. Something was up with all this.
There are all sorts of these spots in time – driving through the mountains of North Carolina above Asheville and hearing of Nixon and the Saturday Night Massacre, and sitting on a farmhouse porch in upstate New York one quiet August evening a few years later, listening to the television in the next room, hearing him resign. Out here in Los Angeles we have our own spots in time – sipping beer with friends and watching the low-speed OJ chase for hours and hours, or standing with the crew at work and watching the fires all over the basin in the Rodney King Riots, from a window wall on a high floor, chatting with each other about how we’d find a safe route home. And for everyone, there was the morning of September 11, 2001 – out here watching it all, direct from New York and Washington with all the speculation, waiting for calls from friends in Manhattan and, finally, half-heartedly, heading off to work.
Oh, it’s not all disaster and death – we all watched the moon landing in 1969, the older folks amazed, and the young folks, raised on Star Trek and Kirk and Spock, nodding yep, that’s as it should be. And this year, big change is in the air politically – a black man and a white woman running for president on one side, even if the other side settled on an old white man, a cranky and odd war hero, from a war long ago, with a history of upsetting his friends more than his opponents. Something was up with all this too.
And then the black man, Barack Obama, with the middle name Hussein, won the first state in the process – the caucuses in mostly-white, mostly-rural, very middle-America Iowa. And he won decisively. The slick but earnest populist, John Edwards, came in second, and the policy-wonk tough woman, and wife of the former president, Hillary Clinton, came in third. This was a bit stunning. Was America changing?
Some thought this might have been a fluke – some sort of positive but anomalous side-effect from the affection everyone feels for the affable but proud but also masterful golfer Tiger Woods, with his black father and Thai mother. Obama’s mother was white and his father a student from Kenya. Perhaps people got the two of them confused. Maybe it was that.
It wasn’t. People liked what he was saying – much of which he had previewed in Boston in 2004 – and he ran a superb organization. By March he had amassed a substantial delegate lead, lead in the popular vote, and had won more states than Clinton, with Edwards dropping out. And as Iowa worked out its delegate distribution in March, one more time, he picked up half of the Edwards delegates there, the rest vowing to still vote for Edwards at the convention, with Clinton losing one that she thought she had. He had the momentum. We were all watching history being made – all the agony over race, with us from the early nineteenth century, was finally dissolving, so we could get down to dealing with quite specific, pressing problems, and, you know, drop all that and fix some things. Clinton’s only hope left was that something would happen that would allow her to make the argument to the party, specifically to the superdelegates, charged with not letting things get out of hand, that Obama was so unacceptable to America, really, that they had to turn to her. She needed a miracle.
She tried many things, all covered here previously, but then she got her miracle – the YouTube videos of Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, preaching, saying things like God damn America, and wondering why people sometimes thought AIDS was unleashed on the black community by the government, and so on. The clips were played endlessly on the cable news shows, and everyone assumed this would sink Obama. This was his mentor, the man who baptized his kids, who performed the marriage ceremony when he wed, his friend. Wright is a scholar and widely-respected, but he has a somewhat fiery style – not what you’d hear in a white Presbyterian church in Duluth. That caught up with Obama – he released Wright from the campaign and said he didn’t agree with what was in the clips, that he hated such talk. But everyone wanted more. They wanted blood.
So we got a bit of history. He didn’t offer up Jeremiah Wright’s head on a platter. He decided to talk about this, to write and deliver a major speech on the whole race business. Some expected defensive whining, others assumed they’d hear bland generalities, but on Tuesday, March 18, 2008, either he delivered the best public address since Martin Luther King said he had a dream, or since Lincoln at Gettysburg – or else provided just hateful trash – depending on your point of view. The consensus was that he had made history. No one had ever said such things before – he confronted our racial divide head-on, speaking to both black grievances and white resentments, holding both up for our consideration, saying we need to understand both, and rethink things, as we all know there is much to do these days. He knows the racial divide is real, but it can be rethought, and if we want things to get better for everyone, we have to do that. He grabbed the issue at hand and said, yes, there is a problem – let’s fix it.
This is how he operates. Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly calls it classic Obama – “I understand why you’re upset. I understand your problems. But let me set out a different way of looking at things.”
One can image the Clinton folks – “Rats! Foiled again!” He said sure, you have a good point, but here’s a better way of looking at it. No fair! Well, no miracle for the Clinton side.
You can watch the speech here or read the transcript – it’s impressive. The Associated Press account is here – Obama confronts racial division – and the AP assigned the story to the woman who many consider to be their one pro-Bush, openly conservative reporter, Nedra Pickler, forever spinning her stories to make the administration look heroic and abused, and those who question it foolish and a tad sinister, and now married to Eric Conner, who works for Fox News. But even she cannot make the speech sound foolish, and to be fair, she did graduate at the head of her class in journalism at Michigan State, so she knows how to report the facts:
Standing before a row of eight American flags near the building where the Declaration of Independence was adopted, Obama urged the nation to break “a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years.'”
“The anger is real,” he said. “It is powerful, and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”
… Obama rejected Wright’s divisive statements but still embraced the man who brought him to Christianity, officiated at his wedding, baptized his two daughters and inspired the title of his book “The Audacity of Hope.”
“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community,” Obama said. “I can no more disown him 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.”
She knows it was a good speech, but she gets in her digs anyway, if you add the emphases:
Obama advisers said he wrote the deeply personal speech himself. They said it was delivered in Philadelphia because of the city’s historical significance, not because it is the most populous black city in Pennsylvania, site of the next primary vote on April 22.
And she emphasizes this:
Obama said he came to Wright’s church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, nearly 20 years ago because he was inspired by the pastor’s message of hope and his inspiration to rebuild the black community. He also said black anger persists over injustice in America, and whites shouldn’t be surprised that it bursts out in sermons.
“The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning,” he said.
But she does report that Obama said it’s not just blacks who are angry – some whites are, too, because they feel blacks are often given an unfair advantage through affirmative action:
“When they are told to bus their children to a school across town, when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed, when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time,” he said.
“If we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care or education or the need to find good jobs for every American,” Obama said, drawing a rare burst of applause in a somber address.
Well, she’s right. It was somber. But as for what Wright said, we’ve had decades of prominent and popular white conservative preachers blasting the evils of America – no one has much cared. They said God hated America – 9/11 happened because of abortion rights and feminism and gay folks. Well, at least the white Men of God didn’t say that maybe our policies and actions have pissed off millions, making us less safe – damn it! – and some crazy folks were bound to do something stupid and awful to us. Ah, that would be going too far.
There is of course a much larger issue here, and Duncan Black explains it well:
Aside from disparate treatment of left and right and black and white in our mainstream discourse, there’s also a difference in the basic narrative provided.
The narrative from the Right – and its representatives in the conservative religious community – is of an America which was once the garden of Eden, until its tragic fall at the hands of (feminists, liberals, civil rights movement, whatever), and they wish to bring the country back to its former state. Thus they can hate the America that is while dreaming of the perfect America that was. Thus there’s no conflict between their unquestioned patriotism and their hatred of the country, as their patriotism is for the True America that was, not its current corrupted incarnation.
While the mirror image rhetoric from the Left is about a country which was flawed, often tragically so, but which has the capacity for improvement. Be disgusted with the country as it was and is, while hoping for an evolution to a better country.
John Dickerson at Slate has a related view:
Can you give a State of the Union address before you’re president? Barack Obama talked about race in America for 45 minutes in a nearly 5,000-word speech. That was longer than some of the annual presidential addresses, and though, yes, those speeches tend to cover more topics, this one felt like it addressed the actual state of our union more than those dreary January list readings presidents are obligated to perform.
The speech was deeply personal. Barack Obama is America. He contains multitudes. He started with the contradiction in the Constitution that celebrated freedom but allowed slavery and continued embracing and exploring contradictions throughout – from his own complex heritage to the complex makeup of the black church to the white immigrant experience.
As you see, Obama was coming from the left – we can do better. This sort of talk is deeply offensive to the right.
Over at Hullabaloo, “dday” explains how Obama is stepping out of a trap:
In answering the question “why didn’t you leave the church, Sen. Obama?” he offers a different question. “Why are you looking at one speech and one church and one moment when the issue, what we’ve been facing for 230 years, is race in America?”
This is just distraction that sends questions about race off into cul-de-sacs, detours, and blind alleys:
This speech is actually the first true conversation about race in America in this campaign. It’s one that makes people uncomfortable and uneasy and hedging. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood; have seen up-close bias in particularly the older generations of my family; have lived in Chicago, where you can be in the Loop and see all the African-Americans on one side of the subway headed south and all the white people headed north; and have engaged with the issue of race from at best a detached viewpoint. What I do believe, and what Sen. Obama remarked upon today, is this issue of distraction, which feeds biases on all sides and disables us from working together to come to terms with race and solve the problems people of all races share. I thought this was an important moment. Obama talks about white resentment and anger, which play on racial fears, and how these have been skillfully used to “forge the Reagan coalition,” which is a pretty big admission for a political candidate.
Obama did say this:
Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years.
He offers a solution:
We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.
But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
So, as “dday” notes, this is “a progressive critique of the class-based economy, wrapped in a larger critique of these ritualized resentments that keep everyone apart.” And he adds this:
I don’t know or really care if it will work electorally; but it was vital that it is said on a big stage out loud. … Obama is talking about bringing together those Americans who already share the same beliefs but have had wedges driven between them. There’s nothing particularly novel about this concept but we’ve been so rightly skeptical of messages of unity that I think it’s gotten muddled.
Conservatives are already firing up the wedges again in reaction to this speech. I heard Rush say that Obama has “now become a racial candidate,” I guess because he said the word race. Their true nature is going to be coming out in this reaction; the fear, the anger, the desperation, the racism. Obama’s speech is large and has a lot of nuance that won’t play in sound bites. I don’t really care to get into the politics of it, but I think we’ll see in the ultimate result whether we’re a nation that still pays attention to these petty concerns and wedges, or whether we can judge a man on the content of his character.
We will see about that. Kevin Drum provides an array of conservative comment, including these:
“Amazingly bloodless and dull; part moral hectoring part awkward defensiveness.”
“I think if you want to be romanced by your candidate, he romanced you. And if you’re a guilty white person, you’re with Obama because he said so.”
“Obama is no longer a post-racial candidate… today he has embraced the politics of grievance.”
“Blame whitey, and raise high the red flag of socialism. This is a serious candidate for the Presidency? Toast, toast.”
There’s much more. On the other hand, “recovering conservative” John Cole calls Obama’s speech “refreshingly candid and long overdue,” and says this – “I also really respect the fact that he didn’t just throw Rev. Wright underneath the bus.”
Kevin Drum runs with that:
There’s a lesson here. Republicans have a reputation for standing by their colleagues through thick and thin. It’s a reputation that may or may not be deserved (they usually find ways to quietly get rid of their albatrosses once the cameras move on), but their public posture is almost always to defend their allies, attack their enemies, and insist that they won’t abandon their friends. And people respect them for it. Most of us prize loyalty even if we don’t always admit it, and most of us recognize politically motivated firings for the cowardly acts they often are.
Obama is beyond that:
Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.
But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.
… Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
No one gets thrown under the bus. Get used to it. Understand everyone has issues, and work with it.
Is that too complicated? Andrew Sullivan hopes not – “If America cannot embrace such complexity, then that says more about our current polity than it does about Obama.”
Yes, it does.
At the New Republic, Alan Wolfe wonders about this asking us to understand each other:
I cannot recall any leader or potential leader in the last two or three decades asking us to do that. I hope we are up to the challenge. I do not believe – nor, from his speech, do I think that Obama believes – that to think seriously about race we have to vote for him. But I do think that when we address race, we ought to do it, not by running endless videos of people, black or white, who have said outrageous things, but by finally having the honest conversation about race we keep promising ourselves – and keep postponing. Agree or disagree with Obama, I ask people who are less inspired by him that I am, but at least acknowledge that in this presidential candidate, we have a man of honor – and an honest man.
At the National Review, Rich Lowry will have none of that:
“‘The Throw Your Grandmother Under the Bus Speech!” That’s what a friend of mine calls it. She only raised him – to get compared to a raving anti-American pastor in his hour of political need.
But also at the National Review, you’ll find the guy who keeps saying that maybe those odd studies are right and blacks really are inferior, Charles Murray, with this:
I read the various posts here on “The Corner,” mostly pretty ho-hum or critical about Obama’s speech. Then I figured I’d better read the text (I tried to find a video of it, but couldn’t). I’ve just finished. Has any other major American politician ever made a speech on race that comes even close to this one? As far as I’m concerned, it is just plain flat out brilliant – rhetorically, but also in capturing a lot of nuance about race in America. It is so far above the standard we’re used to from our politicians.
Over at MSNBC, Chuck Todd suggests Hillary had better counter all this now:
If Obama is being compelled to give a speech about his race, and Romney felt forced to give one about his faith, will Hillary Clinton ever have to give a speech about her husband? Has this campaign shown that it is better to address the elephant in the room, or leave it alone?
That is not nice. She’s just been outclassed. Leave her alone.
The best reaction to the speech, of all, may be from the a devout Catholic and a naturalized citizen, Andrew Sullivan:
I do want to say that this searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech is the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime. It is a speech we have all been waiting for, for a generation. Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history.
And it was a reflection of faith – deep, hopeful, transcending faith in the promises of the Gospels. And it was about America – its unique promise, its historic purpose, and our duty to take up the burden to perfect this union – today, in our time, in our way.
I have never felt more convinced that this man’s candidacy – not this man, his candidacy – and what he can bring us to achieve – is an historic opportunity. This was a testing; and he did not merely pass it by uttering safe bromides. He addressed the intimate, painful love he has for an imperfect and sometimes embittered man. And how that love enables him to see that man’s faults and pain as well as his promise. This is what my faith is about. It is what the Gospels are about. This is a candidate who does not merely speak as a Christian. He acts like a Christian.
Bill Clinton once said that everything bad in America can be rectified by what is good in America. He was right – and Obama takes that to a new level. And does it with the deepest darkest wound in this country’s history.
I love this country. I don’t remember loving it or hoping more from it than today.