In January, I suggested that Barack Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, would become an issue in the campaign. It's not that a candidate is responsible for everything that his minister or someone who has endorsed him says. Wright seemed to raise a particular problem for Obama because the candidate has identified Wright as a critical figure in his life and because Wright is a fire-breathing radical. In response, I was accused of all manner of exaggeration and unfairness.
Offline, I have been getting e-mails from an Obama supporter who is extremely worried about the political fallout from this. I think he's right. Obama has tried to run a campaign that emphasizes unity and claims to be post-ideological (whatever that means). In the course of that, he has been criticized for not being very specific and, as a relative newcomer to the national political scene, there are naturally going to be questions about who this guy really is.
In answering that question, Obama has directed our attention to ... Reverend Wright, even using a Wright phrase as the title for his campaign book.
Reverend Wright is anything but unifying and post-ideological. He views the United States as unrepentantly racist and evil. The problem is not so much that Obama sees things in precisely the same way but that he is comfortable enough with this view that he could attend Wright's church where it was part of the general milieu. It was seen, as Obama has called it, to simply be part of the "social gospel."
That becomes a problem because Wright's view of the country is not simply wrong, it is dangerous and counterproductive. I don't lack sympathy for anyone - even Rev. Wright - who is burdened by our racial past and I don't deny that this past affects us today. But failing to recognize how things have changed and giving credibility to bizarre and unfounded conspiracies that flame racial resentment is not simply a preaching of the "social gospel." It's toxic.
Obama's response to this has not been sufficient and his claim that he would have quit if he had heard these claims "repeated" (whatever that means) may backfire if it turns out that he did hear them "repeated."
It seems to me that he needs to explain how he could regard Wright as so important given the fact that this type of toxicity was not atypical for Wright. I assume that he will say, as he has, that Wright is about more than politics, but Wright is about politics as well and that's the part that is problematic.