Expecting too much from Obama

Barack Obama has done the right thing in the right way by dumping America-hating Rev. Jeremiah Wright. True, he did it at the wrong time, but in politics you take what you can get. When I read about Rev. Wright's self-immolating performance at Washington's National Press Club on Monday, my immediate reaction was that, whatever else might be said about this man, his theology is fatally flawed because he peddles hate. And Barack Obama singled out precisely that failing the next day. He didn't just call himself "outraged" and "saddened." He described Rev. Wright's comments as "giving comfort to those who prey on hate."

Exactly right. But years, even decades too late. So what is left of Barack Obama's political appeal as a healer, especially of racial divisions? (Which, parenthetically, he'd better be after his outburst of snobbery about God, gays and guns left him an extremely dubious healer of cultural ones.) Here I would caution against the unreasonable expectations habitually raised in politics by partisans, commentators and candidates including Mr. Obama himself.

When people said he could heal racial divisions, were they expecting a miraculous laying on of hands and an instant, complete national cure? For some of his more star-struck supporters the answer seems to have been yes. But it was, and is, fatuous to think anyone could heal America's racial divisions with a couple of soaring speeches and an inspiring book. On such a serious problem we should have reasonable expectations.

Indeed, Rev. Wright is correct on one key point: The depth of bitterness among black Americans about historical injustices and their lingering effects is extremely deep. But he is dangerously wrong on another key point, namely that it is the appropriate role of leaders in the black community to foster and nurture that bitterness. It does no good to anyone, least of all his congregation.

If there's a worse sin for a pastor than peddling hate, it's peddling despair. So let me cite another black preacher in response to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright: "We must not," wrote Martin Luther King Jr. in 1958, "let the fact that we are the victims of injustice lull us into abrogating responsibility for our own lives." It would be weird and tone-deaf to ignore the ongoing impact of that ghastly injustice. But to tell black Americans in 2008 they are still the victims of a giant conspiracy, where the CIA unleashes AIDS on them in a country run by the KKK, is to encourage lethal feelings of helplessness.

Rev. Wright is stepping down anyway and one hopes we've pretty much heard the last of him. But the larger issue will not go away nearly so easily. What is most troubling and important about the Obama/Wright affair is that for decades the politician heard this kind of thing from the pastor and, as far as we know, didn't find it odd.

Possibly Sen. Obama sat stone-faced through the weirder bits; possibly he rolled his eyes; possibly he objected; possibly he nodded politely; possibly he nodded enthusiastically. We cannot now tell. Anything anyone suddenly "recalls" about any man who is odds-on favourite to win not just a major party nomination but the presidency of the United States must be treated with profound skepticism. But we can be sure he heard the weirder bits. Just weeks ago Sen. Obama said Rev. Wright was "like family" and the reverend is not a man shy about his opinions.

So we also know, unfortunately, that whatever reaction Sen. Obama had to what he now calls "appalling" and "ridiculous," he didn't find it walk-out-of-the-room outrageous. He may have found it plausible or implausible, true or false, right or wrong, but he didn't think it lunatic-fringe rubbish. And in this he was far from alone. Millions of black Americans routinely listen to this kind of thing from professors, activists, even spiritual leaders, and while some may disagree, far too few find it nutty. Indeed, one measure of the depth of the two American solitudes is that Rev. Wright seems to have had no idea what impact his National Press Club performance would have on his own credibility.

It is against this backdrop that one must judge Barack Obama's conduct now and in the future. Of course his sudden emergency deep-sixing of Rev. Wright was both long overdue and transparently political. But remember: He is a politician. So remember also Henry Kissinger's memorable assessment of his colleague Melvin Laird, Richard Nixon's defence secretary, as "a devious man but, when cornered, a patriot."

Right now Sen. Obama is looking like a devious man but, when cornered, a healer. I'll take it.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]