Monday, April 28, 2008

Wright hand man

Seven hundred and seventy-two days after Barack Obama promised an interview with Fox News, he delivered on Sunday, in a half-hour interview with Chris Wallace in Marion, Ind. And now we’ve seen everything. Leave it to Fox— the “fair and balanced” anathema to much of mainstream media — to actually be fair and balanced (compared to the train wreck of the ABC-sponsored debate the week before).

It was just as well. Wallace and Fox should be happy; 772 days ago there wasn’t nearly as much to talk about. Wallace quizzed the Illinois senator on his “problem” with white male voters (reflected in the turnout in Pennsylvania), government spending, the war in Iraq (in any other situation surely topic A) and some other domestic issues. The big deal, though, was the ecclesiastical elephant in the room, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose comments have created a cottage industry in guilt-association techniques.

But this Obama interview — in his greater embrace of detail and specifics, things that mattered deeply and personally to Americans, rather than the loftier but more imprecise dimensions of inspiring social change — was different. Obama was surer this time out. In his willingness to take on the media’s “anguished columns” about his campaign’s problems, and to address the need to change the strategic dynamic in Iraq, it was clear the steel and sharpness of delivery was there, the fire was back. This was the street fighter people were looking for, a theoretician who could lace up the gloves when he had to. And he had to now.

The interview was generally well received; it went hand in glove with a more hands-on, personal campaigning style in Indiana, one of the two states next to be contested in the Democratic primary race. But Obama got an assist from an unlikely source.

As part of his own campaign for rehabilitation, Wright did an interview with PBS’ Bill Moyers on Friday, and followed that up with an appearance at an NAACP function in Detroit and, on Monday, an address and Q&A session with reporters at the National Press Club in Washington. With the news stories and analysis that followed, the Obama deathwatchers weighed in. A snapshot of the conventional wisdom has it that Obama, already seen as on the ropes in his fight with Hillary Clinton, is damaged further by the reappearance of Wright in the public eye. Some have dared propose that Obama, the frontrunner for the nomination, should quit the race. You could almost hear them building a gallows down the street from Obama headquarters.

But Wright’s resurfacing and his new comments may have the opposite effect: By highlighting the differences between himself and Obama, Wright may well be inviting the American public to make that same separation. Ironically, Obama gains a source of relief from the Wright issue courtesy of the source of the Wright issue.

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At the National Press Club, initially offering an almost academic overview of black American theology, Wright got wound up, saying that the criticism over select snippets from his sermons — a kind of “Wright’s Greatest Microseconds” collection that puts the United States in the Biblical context of an empire subject to decay equal to the abandonment of its principles— was “not an attack on Jeremiah Wright, it has nothing to do with Barack Obama, this is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African American religious tradition.”

Wright’s comments this week and last, and some of his sermons reflect his grasp of the realpolitik aspects of black American theology, a worship that has long combined spirituality and social activism. And those comments are something much of the media wasn’t ready for: an attempt to more deeply contextualize the gotcha soundbites they’d gotten comfortable with, with information about a form of American religion that the media’s never been comfortable with.

But most importantly for Obama, they reflect for Americans the experiential split between one generation of black Americans and another — Wright’s a product of the agonies of the Jim Crow era, Obama’s the inheritor of the gains achieved through that struggle.

And more.

Wright at the National Press Club: “Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on soundbites, based on polls … preachers say what they say because they’re pastors, they have a different person to whom they’re accountable. As I said whether he gets elected or not, I’m still going to have to be answerable to God November 5 and January 21. … I do what pastors do; he does what politicians do.”

Politicians can’t spin Rev. Wright, and the media can’t spin Wright elaborating on his own words. When Wright said his expressions had “nothing to do with Barack Obama,” it forces the media narrative to include his own disavowal of any linkage of thought between Wright and Obama. Wright’s saying “I do what pastors do; he does what politicians do” enables the public to see the basis of a largely unexplored intraracial divide, a divide between the spiritual and the secular — a divide based on nothing less than how to look at the world. That’s something every American can understand, regardless of race.

By laying bare some of the generational distinctions between black Americans — the same kind of distinctions all Americans are subject to — Jeremiah Wright may have done more to position Barack Obama in the national mainstream than Barack Obama could have done on his own.

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Most of the media this week and last seemed to relish in taking the Obama-under-siege line. In her line of inquiry and foundational assumptions built in to some of her reporting lately, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell seems to be so in the tank for Hillary, you wonder if she’s in line to be press secretary in a new Clinton administration.

But every goodbye ain’t gone; the Chinese ideogram for “crisis” is the same as the one for “opportunity.” Barack Obama’s reigning crisis may have taken a step toward resolution in ways few could have expected. And with eight days before primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, he’s taking the opportunity to step up the populist game — not to reinvent himself, a la Team Clinton, but to reintroduce himself, seeking (like Rev. Wright) that second chance at making a first impression.

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