The last Monday in April in Los Angeles – in the mid-nineties by noon, blazing sun, and humid – you didn’t want to move. And you saw those dark clouds off to the north now and then. There might be quick storms and flash floods out in the Mojave, but if one of those storms were to slip south, you knew no rain would fall – any rain would turn to steam on its way down, long before it could even trouble the dust and grit in the streets. Only the mad tourists were out and about in Hollywood – everyone else was hiding in the air-conditioned alternative universe, now and then glancing at the television to see the massive fires working down the hills toward the neighborhoods east of Pasadena. It was one of those days the place seemed apocalyptic, as they say, kind of like in that book – things would end badly.
But here, at the far edge of America, the end of the line, it was, as they say, just another day in paradise – cue Don Henley. The odd thing is that it was just as dispiriting elsewhere – one of those days when you want to sit quietly and not even think. You just want to sit – no more.
The big news story of the day concerned Barack Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Late in the day the Associated Press gave us this – Analysis: Wright Does Obama Little Good
WASHINGTON – The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is going after his critics on an incendiary tour that is doing his one-time congregant, Barack Obama, little good.
You couldn’t avoid the news:
Wright showed no concern for how he might be affecting the presidential race. He suggested Obama was distancing himself only because of political motivations while he, the former pastor, was trying to do what was right in the eyes of the Lord.
“If Sen. Obama did not say what he said, he would never get elected. Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls,” Wright said. “Preachers say what they say because they’re pastors; they have a different person to whom they’re accountable. Whether he gets elected or not, I’m still going to have to be answerable to God November 5th.”
Although many of the clips of Wright that have been dogging Obama’s campaign were from sermons that were several years old, the pastor repeated some of the same ideas for television cameras Monday.
He criticized the U.S. government as imperialist and stood by his suggestion that the United States invented the HIV virus as a means of genocide against minorities. “Based on this Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything,” he said Monday.
Jeremiah Wright pretty much threw Obama under the bus. No one knows why, but there was much speculation, none of it particularly enlightening – Wright was jealous of Obama’s quick rise to fame, or quite mad, or whatever you wish.
But it did present Obama with a problem he really didn’t need.
Obama, campaigning in North Carolina, where the governor suddenly endorsed Hillary Clinton, said this:
Some of the comments that Rev. Wright has made offend me, and I understand why they offend the American people. He does not speak for me. He does not speak for the campaign.
I reiterate that I think Obama has to make clear again that he vehemently opposes the use of race to divide and separate and inflame ancient grievances; that he wants to get beyond the racial politics of the Vietnam era; that he is dedicated to overcoming race and offering hope – not obsessing about race in order to foment anger and bitterness. Parts of the message Wright gave today were not just alien to Obama’s stated views – but actively hostile to them. Obama cannot explain that often enough.
That will no doubt happen, and may work – but even if people do get that the one man is not the other, Obama will, by being forced to point that out, seem defensive, and then weary, and then weak.
And then there’s John McCain – who told the North Carolina Republican Party to stop running ads harping on Wright, and said the issues matter, and obviously Obama did not share the views of Wright. Then came Sunday, with Obama finally appearing on Fox News, saying he could see how Jeremiah Wright might be a legitimate issue to some people. So McCain reversed himself – he would excoriate Wright and Obama now. So much for taking the high road.
In Slate, Christopher Beam sees a problem with McCain now saying that using Wright issue is legitimate:
… on the one hand McCain wants people to know he’s upstanding and above the fray and all that. But on the other, he’d be a fool not to use Wright against Obama. This tension is likely to dog McCain through November. Then there’s always the possibility that harping on Wright could backfire. The moment it stops being about patriotism and starts being about race, McCain could get burned as badly if not worse than Obama.
But Christopher Beam is an optimist. See his speculation on how this all could be good for Obama. You could find it convincing.
One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers is not optimistic at all:
Jeremiah Wright fucked Obama today and fucked him good. Remember how good everything felt right after Obama historical speech in Pennsylvania – like we might inch toward an honest discussion on race? Wright seemed to do everything he could this morning to shut that down. There were some interesting comments in his speech, comments that did not trouble me. But then we reached that Q&A and I practically watched it through my fingers. His comments on Zionism made me sick. And his surprisingly un-nuanced answer to his statement about 9/11? That was a gift to Karl Rove and the freak show. Today has chilled me to the bone.
But this reader does see a silver lining:
This is the exact opening Obama needed to slam the door on Wright. And if he does not, even this diehard supporter will be forced to take a small step back. But what I will be interested in seeing is how other African-Americans react to Wright’s Big Moment. Will they see a man who is greedily and arrogantly using the spotlight of this primary race to potentially spoil Obama’s chances and turn against him?
I hope they do. Wright is not Obama and Obama is not Wright. But Obama’s decency has prevented him thus far from the kind of thing that the Clintons would do without even thinking about it. Wright has now removed any guilt or conflict Obama might feel about denouncing him and his approach to race and politics.
We shall see.
But Obama wasn’t the only one with problems. The press may love John McCain, or fear saying anything negative about a war hero (bad for ratings), and generally avoid pressing him on anything of substance – but those days may be ending. The free ride may be over.
Fareed Zakaria, the International Editor at Newsweek, is dumbfounded by McCain’s foreign policy proposals:
McCain has turned into a foreign-policy schizophrenic, alternating between neoconservative posturing and realist common sense. His speech reads like it was written by two very different people, each one given an allotment of a few paragraphs on every topic.
The neoconservative vision within the speech is essentially an affirmation of ideology. Not only does it declare war on Russia and China, it places the United States in active opposition to all non-democracies. It proposes a League of Democracies, which would presumably play the role that the United Nations now does, except that all non-democracies would be cast outside the pale. The approach lacks any strategic framework. What would be the gain from so alienating two great powers?
See Andrew Sullivan:
When you look at McCain’s fiscal proposals and his foreign policy vision, one begins to sense he actually doesn’t have a firm idea of where to go from here. It is three-quarters trying to give every faction in the GOP something to appease it and one-quarter winging it. Leadership? Nowhere I can see. And fellow journalists who have interviewed him recently report that he seems alternately confused, defensive and cranky. Even on the Wright stuff he seems to be on every side of the issue.
I like the man, but I wonder if he isn’t running eight years’ too late. In a debate with Obama, he might come undone.
Fareed Zakaria also points out this:
We have spent months debating Barack Obama’s suggestion that he might, under some circumstances, meet with Iranians and Venezuelans. It is a sign of what is wrong with the foreign-policy debate that this idea is treated as a revolution in U.S. policy while McCain’s proposal has barely registered. What McCain has announced is momentous – that the United States should adopt a policy of active exclusion and hostility toward two major global powers. It would reverse a decades-old bipartisan American policy of integrating these two countries into the global order, a policy that began under Richard Nixon (with Beijing) and continued under Ronald Reagan (with Moscow). It is a policy that would alienate many countries in Europe and Asia who would see it as an attempt by Washington to begin a new cold war.
See Matthew Yglesias:
I mean, regardless of what you think of the merits of McCain’s thinking on this front, surely the country deserves some debate and analysis of what’s going on here. Instead, insofar as any attention has been paid at all to McCain’s foreign policy vision it’s centered on his empty promise to try to act nicer to Western Europeans. But his views toward Russia and China would represent a much more dramatic and consequential departure from current practice – just not in a friendly and moderate way.
And then in Slate there’s Christopher Hitchens with One Angry Man (Should we worry about John McCain’s temper?).
The anecdotes are both reassuring and distressing, and the best and the worst both come from Arizona. About two decades ago, facing a group in his state GOP that resisted proclaiming a state holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., he shouted, “You will damn well do this” and rammed the idea home with other crisp and terse remarks. Fair enough. However, a bit later, in 1986, he was pursuing a Senate career and took extreme umbrage at an Arizona Young Republican who had given him too small a podium on which to stand before the cameras. It can be tough being 5 foot 9 (as I am here on tiptoe to tell you), but most of us got over it before we were out of our teens, let alone before donning the uniform of the U.S. armed forces.
And he adds this bit of personal whimsy:
One reason that I try never to wear a tie is the advantage that it so easily confers on anyone who goes berserk on you. There you are, with a ready-made noose already fastened around your neck. All the opponent needs to do is grab hold and haul. A quite senior Republican told me the other night that he’d often seen John McCain get attention on the Hill in just this way. Not necessarily hauling, you understand, but grabbing. Again, one hopes that the nominee has been doing this for emphasis rather than as a sign that he is out of his pram, has lost his rag, has gone ballistic, has reported into the post office that he’s feeling terminally disgruntled today.
And then there is Hillary Strangelove – after all she did, in the Philadelphia debate, pledge to “totally obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel, and the comment has rattled key allies, from Saudi Arabia to Britain. On the other hand, William Kristol, who thinks the world would thank us if we wiped Iran from the map, offered a piece in the New York Times saying she gets no respect. There might be a reason for that.
The choices are limited. The three remaining candidates are a bit flawed. Let’s hope we don’t end up with this one.
But there was much more going on than all this. Go back three Aprils ago:
Less than two years after it was plunged into a rape scandal, the Air Force Academy is scrambling to address complaints that evangelical Christians wield so much influence at the school that anti-Semitism and other forms of religious harassment have become pervasive.
There have been 55 complaints of religious discrimination at the academy in the past four years, including cases in which a Jewish cadet was told the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus and another was called a Christ killer by a fellow cadet. …
Now fast-forward to this April, and this story of an atheist soldier being threatened by superiors. UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh has the details from the complaint, and the first commenter on his site, lays down the new law:
The military, that is, is a place where any reduction in unit quality literally costs lives; it is not a place for ‘equal opportunity’ or social engineering.
I would argue that the presence of atheists in the military is vulnerable to that very same argument. Never mind the question of whether an atheist can feel any genuine loyalty to a Christian nation, given that he rejects the core principles on which our nation was built; never mind the unlikelihood that someone who denies an afterlife would sacrifice his own life for any reason, instead of cutting and running like John Kerry; never mind the fact that atheism correlates with all manner of other moral degeneracy …
You see where this is going. John Kerry was a coward in Vietnam and George Bush a hero, and this is a Christian Nation and all the rest.
… the simple fact is that we are a Christian nation with a Christian army, and our soldiers’ strength and willingness to sacrifice their lives for the good of the United States and their fellow soldiers comes, in large part, from their Christian faith. An atheist cannot, by definition, share in that faith or that culture; he cannot pray with his troops or empathize with their worries and inmost beliefs; and how can a Christian soldier trust his life to someone who, the Bible makes clear, is hated by God and condemned to Hell? How can a Christian trust the leadership of someone who refuses to be led by God?
I’m sure (some) atheists would be able to serve with distinction in the military, just like some women could. But, again, the army is not a place for social engineering; the answer to prejudice in the military is not to forcibly integrate – with the attendant costs to unit cohesion and morale – and expect them to “get over it” in situations when their “getting over it” will cost lives. If (God forbid!) atheism becomes acceptable to the vast majority of the United States’ civilian population, then it will be time to permit atheists to serve. Until then, our army is – and should remain – Christian.
And that’s that.
Andrew Sullivan, a devout Catholic, has a bit to say about this:
One of the darkest developments of many dark developments in the Bush years has been the slow ascent of Christianism as a core value of the military. The promotion of Christianists throughout the armed services, the insistence by the president that no public institution be regarded as a place where religion should be silent, clear discrimination against Jews and atheists in military educational institutions: the possibility of a secular military dedicated to defending all Americans regardless of their faith or lack of it has been called into question under the current administration.
The resilience of the ban on gays – while the military has granted a record number of waivers to criminals – can only be understood if one sees the US military as an increasingly religious institution at this point, and not a rational secular one.
We’re not supposed to like the rational, or the secular. It really was one of those days when you want to sit quietly and not even think. You just want to sit – no more.
Let things be what they will be, that’s what you do in the innervating Monday heat out here, the same Monday that the Supreme Court today upheld Indiana’s new voter ID law, requiring a photo ID when you vote, even if you don’t have a driver’s license. Common Cause knows what’s up – restricting in-person voting tends to reduce turnout among minorities, the elderly, and voters with disabilities, the poor, and the young. They don’t come out and say it, but those are the people that tend to vote Democratic. Absentee voters tend to vote Republican. Oh well.
John Paul Stevens offered the lead opinion:
It remains true, however, that flagrant examples of such fraud in other parts of the country have been documented throughout this Nation’s history by respected historians and journalists, that occasional examples have surfaced in recent years, and that Indiana’s own experience with fraudulent voting in the 2003 Democratic primary for East Chicago Mayor – though perpetrated using absentee ballots and not in-person fraud – demonstrate that not only is the risk of voter fraud real but that it could affect the outcome of a close election.
What? Indiana’s law does exactly the opposite. It requires voter ID for in-person voting and does nothing to ensure the integrity of absentee voting. You’re solving the wrong problem. It must be the heat – addles the brain and all that.
In Slate, Marty Lederman suggests Stevens was thinking of something else – of Boss Tweed stuffing ballot boxes in 1868, of a case in Washington (state) in which all of one person committed voter fraud, or that 2003 case of fraud in Indiana which, as Stevens acknowledges, the new law wouldn’t cover at all, because the fraud was committed via absentee ballot.
That’s it? It must be the heat. Let it be. The weather will change.