Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama Passes Test; Will We?
By now you've heard about or read about or actually read Barack Obama's speech, given this morning in Philadelphia. Reaction around the blogosphere and, far as I can tell, within the mainstream media, breaks down into two categories: he either gave a brilliant speech that reaffirmed why his campaign has so far exceeded expectations from, say, six months ago, or he gave a good speech that didn't address his immediate political problem, which is winning (or winning back) white working-class voters who might have been open to Obama's appeal but were likely turned off by what they heard about Jeremiah Wright.

(Myself, I thought it was brilliant and easily cleared the bar Sullivan set for him--but if he can't get me with a simultaneously erudite and heartfelt speech about an issue that gets to the core of his candidacy, he probably should just pack it up. So we'll put my response off to the side here.)

Both these analyses are correct, but they both miss a larger point. The speech was, among other things, a challenge to get past the sound bites and out-of-context attacks that have come to characterize our politics and grapple with real, difficult, complex issues. He rejects the demonization of Jeremiah Wright, but doesn’t make him a martyr either; he presents him, I think accurately, as a man who's done admirable things but seen and suffered a great deal from our national legacy of discrimination. Obama essentially condemns Wright's speech--not the man himself, a point that seems to track with what I understand of Christianity--for telling just one side of the story:

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen - is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope - the audacity to hope - for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

I'm not sure that we are ready for this kind of complexity--for a public person like Wright who's neither a hatemonger nor a righteously enraged saint, but someone trying to serve his community and in some sense speak truth to power whose own experience has twisted him beyond the capacity for objective consideration. Maybe we are; our popular entertainments, at least, are starting to get past two-dimensional heroes and villains (think about The Sopranos). But not in our politics. The right wing in particular has always thrived on caricatures—Democrats are either waffling wimps, lecherous monsters, or serial liars--and the Politics of Extreme Simplification worked to win Bush a second term in 2004. But the left has gone too far in that direction by demonizing Bush—who isn’t evil so much as painfully out of his depth. (His policies might be evil in consequence, but it's absurd to think of him, or even Cheney, sitting there stroking a cat and laughing maniacally like Mike Myers.)

And this brings us back to Obama. He doesn’t present himself as perfect, even if some voices in the media have characterized him as doing so. Rather, he's a guy who seems almost to be thinking out loud, trying to reason through some very complicated problems. That's essentially the story he tells in his first book, and it's watching him go through that process on the page, grappling with fundamental questions of identity, that convinced me he has the capacity to lead in the presidency.

This is a little different from what we've become accustomed to: an image of power and leadership that admits of no mistakes, that lies with ease and even grace when we know they’re lying and they know we know. Obama isn’t a saint and his judgment, though good, isn’t perfect: the Rezko association and the failure to realize that Wright would be a political problem are more than ample proof of that.

So the question might not be so much whether or not we’re ready for a black president, as for one who is recognizably human, with the inevitably flawed nature that implies.

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