03/28/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Race Speech: Damned If He Does, Damned If He Doesn't

Here's what I know of Barack Obama and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Wright is the pastor at a church in Chicago who, at various points in his life, walked into a room and said some pretty objectionable-slash-crazy-ass things about America. Barack Obama may or may not have been in the room at the time when he said these objectionable-slash-crazy-ass things, but he definitely was in the room with Wright at other times, when Wright may or may not have said other objectionable things. It is also apparent that Obama was in the room with Wright at times when Wright said other things, which Obama did not deem objectionable-slash-crazy-ass, but rather hopeful-slash-optimistic, and those things, said at that time, may have formed the backbone of certain principles that inspired Obama's political life. There may have been other people, in other rooms, who said other things to other people, including potentially Barack Obama, some of which may have been objectionable-slash-crazy-ass. Or not.

Got that? It is confusing. But not so much that I cannot empathize. Some years ago I wrote a graduate-school thesis, in which I believe I remarked that the way William Shakespeare manipulated the heartbeat of his iambic pentameter so as to effortlessly reveal his characters' internal states-of-mind was enough to qualify him as an absolute master of the English language, worthy of continued study and critical praise. But, as it turns out, Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, which includes a brutally anti-Semitic representation of a major character, and The Taming of the Shrew, which hardly takes an enlightened approach in its depiction of women. So, I guess I should renounce, denounce, reject, repudiate, disavow, disown, cast off, scorn, spurn, blackball, and -- ere the cock crows -- deny thrice for good measure, any previous compliment I may have paid a poet who once said things that I didn't agree with one hundred percent of the time. And Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, so he's a racist, and the university he founded which fueled my fascination with Shakespeare should be summarily rejected, denounced, et al., and maybe the country he helped to found, America, should also be renounced, dissed, and perhaps even damned by God, thus bringing us full circle.

All of this should teach all of us an important lesson: before you are born and proceed upon a life filled with both knowing people who stand in rooms and say things, and complimenting other people who stood in other rooms and said other things, you'd better think it all through! Because what's to be done after you've been caught not repudiating things that other people deem repudiatable? Or worse: what if, after you've repudiated those things, other people say that you didn't repudiate them hard enough?

That is essentially the fine pickle in which Barack Obama finds himself -- one that's entirely of his own making. He's made the fatal mistake of assuming that his "words" and his "explanations" and the "character" he's demonstrated through a lifetime of "actions" is sufficient in assuaging the concerns of voters. But he forgot about the need to satisfy the media. And clearly his previous denunciations of Reverend Wright's remarks have not been sufficient. And if you can't satisfy the media, can you really satisfy the voters, who the media will say aren't satisfied? Probably not.

But if I could ask a question of the media figures who are regularly calling for Obama to reject Wright today, who urged Clinton to reject Geraldine Ferraro the day before and who demanded Obama reject Louis Farrakhan earlier last week, it would be this: what would satisfy you? What action could any of these candidates take to settle the matter -- that they have their own ideas and positions and are not some sort of tabula rasa that sponges up only the most mean-minded things the people with whom they have come in contact with have espoused?

If you believe all the racket and clamor, it would seem that this occasion calls for Barack Obama to do something major, something grandiose, something that leaves no doubt at all that his feelings of rejection toward the statements of Reverend Wright are deep and vast and absolute. Maybe he should go so far as to invite Wright to a media event, and then hit him repeatedly with a large stick of some kind! It is possible, however, that even this might not be enough to satisfy some people, and, indeed, the violent acts, while leaving no doubt as to the ferocity of Obama's repudiation, may go too far, and offend others. Instead, Obama will go before the kliegs tomorrow and deliver a "major speech about race" that will likely actually be a "major speech about some crazy stuff a guy said during a sermon at a black church."

There's a good chance that his "major speech about race" will be sufficient, like the time Mitt Romney gave his "major speech about religion" that everyone loved and which solved all of his problems. But there's also a chance that his speech will fail and spell doom for his candidacy, like the time Mitt Romney gave his "major speech about religion" that everyone thought was phony and made the media remember how awesome John McCain was. If Obama fails to address the matter, it could be bad. But if he does address the matter, the results could be equally ungood, only maybe doubleplus so.

In the end, what will it matter? At some point, there will be other figures, and other remarks, that candidates will need to repudiate. If Obama survives, he may have to repudiate Tony Rezko by allowing Fox News to burn his house to the ground on national television. Someone might remember that John McCain has warmly embraced religious bigots of his own, and force McCain to subject them to the same tortures he faced as a soldier in order to ensure a perfect karmic balance. And if Clinton gets the nomination, well... let's just say I have it on good authority that she might be connected to a major political figure who was once put through an impeachment trial. Yeah. You may think we're not going to hear all about that sooner or later. But I'd think again if I were you. There's nothing the political media loves so much as the damnation game. In fact, that's probably the root of their beef with Reverend Wright in the first place: when he "damned America," he was muscling in on their turf.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?