On Tuesday, this son of Eastern European stock drove into Center City to bear witness to a speech about race delivered by a candidate who described himself in his remarks as "the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas."
Rep. Patrick Murphy (D., Pa.), the product of Irish and Italian ancestry, had invited me as his guest to hear Sen. Barack Obama. He also offered the possibility for me to conduct an interview with Obama for use on radio. That chance prompted my producer, a Mayflower-bred, Harvard-educated, Main Line mom, to offer to carry the sound equipment and drive us to the event in -- what else? -- her Volvo.
Immediately after the speech, lunchtime added to the bustle of the block at Eighth and Race, where I stood with my bald white head and my BlackBerry. Meanwhile, my lily-white colleague sought to retrieve her Cross Country wagon. Unfortunately, in her haste to exit the parking lot, she scraped an immaculate SUV in the adjacent space. (Her defense: She herself was on the phone, responding to a request from Fox News for me to react to the speech.) When I went to inspect the damage on the other vehicle, I took note of the Puerto Rican flag hanging from the rearview mirror.
A parking attendant responded to the fender-bender. He was a black man wearing a bow tie and speaking with an African accent. I heard him tell my WASP-y producer she couldn't leave the lot until his manager arrived. While she was handling this development, I saw a Latino man with close-cropped hair and low-hanging jeans cross the lot and upon seeing the damage to his 2007 Suzuki, he was instantly anguished. "Manny" (as we later learned he was named) was understandably upset to learn what had happened in his absence.
An hour earlier, I'd been watching Barack Obama. Now, I was caught up in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm with more metaphors than I could keep track of.
I'd walked into the National Constitution Center thinking like Howard Baker: What did Barack Obama hear from Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. and when did he hear it? I wanted to know what kept him coming back to the pew after two decades of toxic diatribes, and I wondered whether he was really taken aback at seeing the now-notorious YouTube clip of Wright, whether he'd been present for that sermon or not. After all, he had disinvited Wright from delivering the invocation at his campaign announcement for some reason.
I exited the speech thinking that if I ultimately do not vote for Obama it will be for reasons other than his minister.
What I found most refreshing about the speech was Obama's willingness to give it at all -- a totally unmuzzled talk about race. He spoke with customary elegance, in stark contrast to the angry rants of his pastor. How ironic that this powerful orator has been undermined not by his own words, but by those of his pastor, and some of his critics. He has managed to distance himself from the angry extremists to his left and right, using something more than just grandiose language: substance. The transcript is definitely recommended reading.
His speech noted the reality of America's history of racial inequality, but also the legitimacy of some concerns of the white middle class. And he made admissions. ("Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely...")
Perhaps most important, Obama made clear where he believed Wright had been wrong:
"The profound mistake of Rev. 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."
A point well taken. How can America be so fundamentally unfair and racist if one of Wright's very congregants is now positioned to capture the Democratic nomination for president? As Obama said, "I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible."
Two blocks away after the speech, the lot attendant with the African accent returned to tell the WASP woman and the Puerto Rican man not to worry because his manager was en route. Sure enough, within a few minutes, a natty BMW pulled up and out popped "Mr. Tran," the Asian supervisor who had come to sort out the unfolding drama. All parties spoke civilly, cooperated, and parted company with handshakes all around. Which reminded me of something else I'd heard that day:
" . . . [W]e may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction -- towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren."