At a press conference yesterday afternoon, Barack Obama publicly divorced himself from his former pastor, calling Jeremiah Wright's controversial comments inexcusable rants, destructive, outrageous and appalling. Obama appeared to take the appropriate tone and has received, thus far, mostly positive reviews throughout the blogosphere and in the mainstream media.
The comments by Wright were also wrapped into a news cycle in which Al Sharpton took a surprisingly sharp tone with Obama, criticizing him for seeking nonviolence in the wake of the Sean Bell verdict. According to the New York Post, Sharpton accused Obama of "grandstanding in front of white people." Taken together, Wright's comments and Sharpton's criticism suggest a growing schism among the leadership of the African American community. Those leaders born out of the struggle of the civil rights movement appear frustrated, if not threatened, by a potential Obama presidency.
To some extent, it is a question of method. The post-racial ideals that undergird the Obama candidacy run counter to the tone that Sharpton and Wright have used as a guiding principle: furious anger in the face of injustice. Obama's approach is more measured, more even-keeled, and given his success, more effective. It may be that Sharpton's and Wright's motives are purely selfish, growing out of a fear that Obama will marginalize the need for their kind of leadership.
Whatever the case, that Reverend Wright has stepped back onto the national stage is undoubtedly damaging to the Obama campaign. But it brings with it a silver lining. Though Obama's attempts to defend Wright while denouncing his comments were certainly admirable, it had the effect of keeping the Wright story alive. Now, the nuance that Obama once required is no longer necessary; when McCain or the RNC attacks Wright, Obama can agree.
It also allows Obama to separate himself from Wright in a way he has, until now, been unable. Obama's previous defense of Wright had painted him as a good man taken largely out of context, leaving questions in the minds of many as to how much Obama and Wright were really alike. Now that Wright has proven himself to be angry and arrogant, paranoid and delusional, the contrast between him and Obama could not be more stark. It is no longer possible to compare them.
In the narrow context of the upcoming primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, Wright may still prove to have been severely damaging to Obama. But in the broader context of a race that won't end until November, this new controversy will likely subside.
The frustration with presidential contests is that they almost always devolve into issues that do not -- or at least should not -- matter. John Kerry's race was more about Swiss cheese and wind surfing than it was about Iraq and health care. It seems too that a presidential race itself has little relationship to answering who would make a better president. Debates and town halls bear little resemblance to the day to day activities of a commander in chief. But the one thing a presidential campaign can demonstrate is the extent to which a candidate can deal with the political reality of political reality.
Reverend Wright as an issue shouldn't matter. Reverend Wright as an obstacle should. Obama must prove that he is capable of navigating such hurdles, and overcoming them; doing so is the only way he can prove to the American people that he will not be distracted from the work with which he is asking to be entrusted. As of today, he has done his job well.