Barack Obama delivered a high-profile speech on race Tuesday, denouncing incendiary sermons by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but attributing them to bitterness in the black community over the nation’s history of slavery and discrimination. Aides said the address was one that Obama, the first African American with a real shot at the presidency, would have to give. “I suppose the politically safe thing to do would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork," Obama said, “but race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore.” (Chicago Tribune)
What the commentators said
Obama pulled out all the stops with a sweeping address, said John Dickerson in Slate. “The speech was deeply personal,” starting with “the contradiction in the Constitution that celebrated freedom but allowed slavery,” and moving on to “his own complex heritage.” The questions is, “can Obama's speech of so many words blot out the YouTube videos” of “Wright saying ‘God damn America’? It probably can't as a blunt political matter.”
“We can’t know how effective Obama’s words will be with those who will not draw the distinctions between faith and politics that he drew, or who will reject his frank talk about race,” said The New York Times in an editorial (free registration). “What is evident, though, is that he not only cleared the air over a particular controversy — he raised the discussion to a higher plane.”
And it would have been so easy for him to have offered just “a simple exercise in damage control,” said Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times (free registration). Obama “did what he had to do, unequivocally repudiating Wright's extreme rhetoric. But what was truly radical about his analysis was his implicit demand that black and white Americans accept the imperfection of each other's views on race.” That elevated his speech, the most frank talk on race ever from a presidential candidate, into something historic.
This was indeed “one of the finest political performances under pressure since John F. Kennedy” addressed prejudices against his Catholic faith in 1960, said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post (free registration). But Obama “fell short in significant ways.” Wright, you see, “is not a symbol of the strengths and weaknesses of African Americans. He is a political extremist, holding views that are shocking to many Americans who wonder how any presidential candidate could be so closely associated with an adviser who refers to the ‘U.S. of KKK-A’ and urges God to ‘damn’ our country.”
And the important thing to remember, said Linda Chavez in National Review Online, is that he chose to belong to an Afrocentric church, where Rev. Wright’s “extremist rhetoric” provoked not condemnations but amens. “Obama claims to want to cross America’s racial divide and bring Americans, black and white, together,” but it’s hard to take him seriously, or let him “disown Rev. Wright’s disturbing words,” when he continues to belong to a church that openly promotes “a racist ideology.”