I don't know whether Senator Obama will prove to be a great politician or a great president. He has made mistakes, like everyone else on the campaign trail. Circumstance sometimes forces him to be a fairly conventional politician. At times, though, the moment leads him to be something more. This morning, Senator Obama needed that something more. Embattled by public outcry over incendiary statements made by his pastor, Reverend Wright, he faced a deadly threat to his candidacy. And he responded.
I will just say that in 37 minutes, Obama showed a touch of greatness. Without the usual campaign artiface or spin, with surprisingly little superstar wattage or lofty rhetoric, he said what had to be said. He explained, in sympathetic but critical terms, why views such as Reverend Wright's are so widely held in the African-American community. Angry black men like Reverend Wright are good people. Their life experience provides all-too-many reasons to be embittered about an American society which has so often let them down, neglected or mistreated the people they loved.
I am sad for Reverend Wright today. He is no Louis Farrakhan. Anyone who spends time in embattled African-American communities has heard similar things said countless times. I have met many people like him. Born in a certain time and place, sometimes prone to express dicey opinions that make, say, a visiting Jewish public health researcher nervous, these are often the same people who call after your sick parent and save a kind word for your kid. Their pungent opinions do not capture how they actually treat white people close at hand. Reverend Wright deserves better than to be defined by some incautious outbursts thrown onto YouTube.
At the same time, Senator Obama was right to repudiate Reverend Wright's despair. America has a greater capacity to improve itself than the Reverend credits. Barack Obama has led a very different, far more blessed life that allows him to embrace these capacities more clearly and with less ambivalence than Reverend Wright can. That anger in the African-American community can explode with tragic and ugly consequences. It must be molded into a more universal call for compassion and social justice in America.
Senator Obama said some other things, too: about the anger many white people feel towards the high rates of crime and academic failure in the African-American community, about arguably misplaced but real resentment of affirmative action.
I can't imagine another leading politician making this speech. Robert Kennedy did the awful night Martin Luther King was killed, but that was another time. Bill Clinton can move African-Americans and whites. Yet I never fully escape the sense of political artifice, the sense that a calibrated Sister Souljah moment may intrude.
Senator Obama is no less of a practical and ambitious politician. He wants to lead Americans across boundaries of every color line. He is betting that enough people are out there, on all sides, for this to be a winning bet. He may fall short. He showed a touch of greatness today, but are Americans ready for it? The jury is out. It is possible that Reverend Wright's pessimism about America will prove sadly prescient.