Monday, May 12, 2008

Obama the Patriot

Everybody knows about the two speeches Barack Obama needed to get past, or at least try to get past, his pastor problem.

There was the first one, early March in Philadelphia, when he said the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country,” yet he insisted, “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother.”

Then there was the second speech, after Wright’s rantings about a government plot to spread AIDS in black communities revealed to the world his hallucinations about the nature of America. A visibly stunned Obama disowned him — and learned that he didn’t have to also disown his grandma or blacks in general.

But there was a third speech. It came Tuesday night, after Obama’s win in North Carolina. And it helped the candidate muscle his now former pastor into a locked sound-proof box from which no more damaging YouTube loops can escape (at least until Republicans try to smash it open).

Yet in that victory speech Obama did not mention Wright, or even allude to the maelstrom that threatened his viability as a presidential candidate. What he did was try to soothe, without saying that’s what he was doing, the fear that fed that maelstrom: Patriotism.

It all came down to the anxiety that a man who might be President of the United States did not love his country.

The entire Wright episode has been denounced as a distraction from discussion of “real issues” like the economy, health care, the war in Iraq, terrorism, immigration (remember that?) and America’s deteriorated image and declining influence on the world stage.

But the questions raised by Obama’s relationship with the delusionally anti-American Wright did constitute a real issue. It is not just a partisan hatchet job to ask how it is possible for a man who loves his country, and might be president of us all, to think enough of Wright to have him as mentor — spiritual or otherwise — for 20 years.

Obama has yet to explain how that is possible. He has yet to explain what he was thinking about Wright, or what he had heard Wright say over those two decades. That’s almost half a lifetime for Obama. Did he entirely miss hearing the pastor’s bizarre views that seem to be not merely the product of a moment of loopiness, but an entire political philosophy? And if he did not miss it, how can he have put up with it?

No, he has not explained how all that is possible. Yet in North Carolina he made it clear that it is possible.

Obama needed to show that he loves this country as much as any old-fashioned Ronald Reagan patriot, even without the flag pin. Which is what he did in North Carolina.

“This is the country that made it possible for my mother — a single parent who had to go on food stamps at one point — to send my sister and me to the best schools in the country on scholarships,” he said. “I know the promise of America because I have lived it. It is the light of opportunity that led my father across an ocean. It is the founding ideals that the flag draped over my grandfather’s coffin stands for — it is life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Back in that Philadelphia speech, he spoke in front of an array of U.S. flags and praised the Founding Fathers, but he also denounced America’s original sin — the hypocrisy of permitting slavery in the world’s first democracy. Noting that then, in the context of trying to explain his relationship with Wright, was necessary.

In North Carolina, however, the task was to get past Wright and affirm the patriotism that had been questioned. Which he did as well as anyone could have hoped.

Time to stop it about Jeremiah Wright.

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