Friday, January 25, 2008

More thoughts on Obama

Last week I posted an item on Barack Obama and his minister, Jeremiah Wright. The point of the piece was as follows. Obama has ran a campaign that is long on aspirational rhetoric about hope and change and very short on what that hope and change means. (I'm not talking about what you can find stuck on a website; I am referring to the campaign's messaging.)

In addition, he is, for a presidential candidate, a person of remarkably little prior national exposure and astonishingly little Presidential caliber experience. (And, yes, this description could also be applied to George W. Bush in 2000.)Unlike, say McCain, Clinton and Giuliani, we don't know him very well. (And, yes, I agree that we don't know Romney or Huckabee all that well either.)

In light of that - and because this is an election for President and we are entitled and obligated to understand those who want the job - I blogged that it was appropriate to ask Obama to clarify his relationship with and, more importantly, his understanding and evaluation of the views of Jeremiah Wright.

I said it was appropriate because Obama himself has said that Wright has been very influential in his life.

Wright is an Afrocentric Christian minister in the mode of black liberationist theologian James Cone. Cone has championed a view of racial reconciliation that tends to be more separationist and focused on grievance which, in his view, must be addressed in particular ways before reconciliation is possible. (At least for the most part, Martin Luther King held a differing view.) My sense is that Wright generally shares Cone's view and his praise for Louis Farrakhan reflects that.

Obama's messaging is far from this, but we generally don't allow candidates to define themselves without critical examination. It seems useful then to ask Obama what he thinks about his pastor's more radical views. Not because Obama is black and we have to assure ourselves that every black candidate is not Eldridge Cleaver in MLK clothing, but because he himself has directed our attention to Rev. Wright.

The MJS excerpted this post for the Best of the Blogs and, because it was a long post (imagine that on S & S!) had to edit it heavily. What remained was fair but couldn't convey all of the nuance.

This prompted at least one caller to Eric Von's show to wonder if I am a racist. I don't see where that comes from, although I am certainly willing to clarify and hope that I have.

But I think that the Obama campaign - and those who support him - would be playing a dangerous game if they yield to the temptation to characterize criticisms of or challenges to the candidate as racist.

My Backstory colleague Dave Berkman (who I have grown to be fond of, notwithstanding politics frozen in amber since 1965)succumbed to the temptation during last night's show. Obama, in his view, has answered all questions about Wright and has kicked him under the bus. Therefore, the only explanation for raising the issue is racist.

Now, I did spend some time looking at news articles about Wright and Obama before I posted. I know that Obama has said that he has disagreements with Wright and decided not to have Wright introduce him at his presidential announcement. I do not know that he has explained, in a way likely to come to the attention of large numbers of people, just how he reconciles his own presumably kinder and gentler view of unity with those of his spiritual mentor.

Perhaps he has and I missed it, but this is not an unreasonable question. When you proclaim yourself to be devoted to unity and to getting past historic divisions, you ought to expect people to ask you what that means. Cone's view of unity is quite different than King's and these differences might matter to some people.

As I said, it could be that Obama really has addressed this in a way that I would find satisfying. Maybe I am being unfair to Rev. Wright. I am willing to listen to those who think so.

But to be told that even asking the question is racist or, as one local blogger put it, places one in the category of those with no souls is beyond the pale and exactly the wrong way to get your guy elected.

In this country, given our racial past, you can always use race to shut people up. They will back off, but they won't like it. If they perceive that you are using race to fend off what they see as legitimate nonracial questions, they will respond by disengaging from you so that you can no longer use this weapon against them.

I think that, at least to some degree, Obama understands that and is trying hard to avoid it. There are times when I wonder if the Clinton strategy is to move him away from that - to goad him into playing the race card against their attacks and thus redefining him as the "black candidate" with a limited appeal.

If that's so, they truly are some evil geniuses and those who are playing the race card in defense of Obama are playing right into their hands.


Anonymous said...

Let's be frank. Blacks injected race into the Obama campaign by asking if he was "black enough", as if he needed to wear a clock on a big chain around his neck and name his daughter "Lakisha" to qualify. Erik Von, for noe, said that he'd vote for Obama because he was black, but nonetheless continually questioned Obama's blackness. Once anything about Obama other than "the content of his character" became the focus then all "isms" came into play, but let's not forget that it was blacks who insisted that Obama had to be defined by no more than being the black candidate. I don't understand why you show up at all for Backstory, which is not just stuck in 1965's mileau, its mired in black racism; do you not listen to the callers??

Rick Esenberg said...

Eric Von did not question Obama's "blackness." I have sat in that studio or listened to my radio and have repeatedly heard him decline to question any African American's "blackness", including, not only Obama, but Clarence Thomas.

I would expect Eric to support Obama because, near as I can tell, Eric's views are - with some exceptions - closer to standard Democratic policy positions than to Republicans and, quite frankly, were those my political inclinations, I'd support Obama.

I show up for Backstory because I don't think it's healthy for people to talk only to those who hold the same opinions. I think Eric's listeners need to hear people like me and I need to hear people like Eric's listeners.

Mike Plaisted said...

Trying to make people uncomfortable about Obama based on a (mis)understanding of his religious affiliations is a form of swift-boating. To the extent the attempted smear benefits from people's ignorance and fear of the Black Power movement as embodied in a church, it is racist. It is beyond funny that those - yes - with no souls who treated the heroic war records of Kerry and Cleland like so much used toilet paper would now look down their snotty noses at a Black church that is trying to make sense and somehow find hope in the legacy of slavery and permanent poverty.

Those people couldn't care less about Obama's faith, Rev. Wright or even Louis Farrakhan. They bring it up as some kind of "issue" because it works to take the gloss off of Obama.

Claiming that some are playing "the race card" because they call you on the obvious implications of your attack on Obama doesn't mean that you aren't.

Anonymous said...

Given our nations history of racism and the fact that Obama is the first black man ever to have a real shot at being president we owe it to him and to ourselves to leave his race out of the dialog unless he himself brings it up.

I understand where you are coming from by raising questions about Rev. Wright. We can question all we want and that is fair. But it is unfair to suggest that he would make race an issue unless he has previously done so.

If there is one arena where we need to remain P.C. it is the political arena.

Rick Esenberg said...

I am not suggesting that he would make race an issue. In fact, my suggestion was that the Clintons are trying to provoke him into doing it and people like Mike Plaisted, who apparently believes that opposition to something he calls Black Power (haven't heard that term for a decade or three) is racist, play right into that.

Mike Plaisted said...

Rough world, isn't it, Rick? Can't make insinuations about Obama's church without being called a racist; can't be a candidate for the Supreme Court and call your opponent names.

Maybe you might want to try being FOR something for a change, rather than trying to prevail by smearing the opposition.

Anonymous said...

If you weren't suggesting that he would make race an issue, I am not sure what you were suggesting when you stated:

"It has always been a goal of the left to bring whites and blacks together on the common ground of white guilt and black grievance. It hasn't worked yet and it never will. Is that what Obama proposes behind his softer and gentler language?"

I am not calling you a racist. I am just saying we should leave race out of the debate until the persons whose race is in question raises the point.

Jay Bullock said...

Unlike, say McCain, Clinton and Giukiani
Um, it's spelled "9iu11iani."

And I would be interested in knowing what, exactly, about his experience is "presidential caliber."

Anonymous said...

Sorry Rick, but you're not listening to your own station if you've missed Von discussing the question of whether Obama is black enough. And Von has repeatedly stated that he's voting for Obama because he's black. Finally, you think people need to hear your opinions - but given the response I hear to your opinions on Backstory you're wasting your time. You'd actually be heard if you had your own show.

Rick Esenberg said...


I think being Mayor of New York City is a fairly large job, but my point went more to the amount of time he has been a national figure. When you are relatively new - and we can apply this to Romney as well as Obama - people are going to have a lot of questions. It's better to answer them than to attack those who ask them.

Anonymous said...


Your inability to disagree with someone without attacking them is a sign of childishness (think kids on a playground Mike)as well as not really knowing how to respond. Grow up. Or can't you?

Mike Plaisted said...

It's amazing how thin-skinned the people are who traffic in the politics of personal distruction and then whine when someone calls them on it. That's not an "attack". It's holding up a mirror.

Rick Esenberg said...


What I mean is this. Obama tells us that Rev,. Wright is very important to his formation. Rev. Wright has a view of racial reconciliation that is, I think, pretty much what I described in the quote that you refer to.

That is not what we are hearing from Obama. We are hearing vague references to moving beyond the "politics of the past" and to "unity." I think it's fair to ask him what he means by all of that and how it relates to this formative figure in his past.

Be honest. If I were running for something and said that my pastor Jerry Falwell was very important in my development, wouldn't that raise some questions for you? Wouldn't I be wrong if I responded to your questions by calling you an anti-Christian bigot?

Anonymous said...

I am following you Rick. The only issue I have with your post was that single paragraph where I feel you stepped over a boundary that you shouldn't have crossed.

Bringing up the race issues that Obama's pastor has dealt with is not improper, nor does it make you a racist in my mind. We can look at Rev. Wright and wonder why Obama chose his church, we can even raise an eyebrow when Obama's pastor's daughter praises Farakhan. But it is completely unfair to attach the politics of black grievance to Obama through his associate. He has never done anything to earn those attributes. He has done the exact opposite.

Anonymous said...

This is hilarious. Plaisted and his pals have determined that you are racist and trying to stir the pot Rick. Your questions about Obama aren't welcome. We are all racist except liberals. They aren't racist, they are co-existish. I've said it before Rick, you have the patience of a Saint (St. Patrick mayhaps) with these lib hacks. They don't offer you the same respect that you offer them.
Plaisted's nonsense was particularly funny. You attacked Obama Rick! You don't care about his religion, you are just a racist.
Plaisted said so.

Rick Esenberg said...


Fair enough, although I am not
"attributing" anything to him. I'm asking a question. I understand that, in the hyperpartisan world of the universe, people like Plaisted are going to immediately man the guns.

I also understand that the reaction of some of these people (like Dave Berkman) is going to be influenced by what's happening in the Democrat race right now in which the Clintons may be trying to provoke Obama into racializing the campaign.

But I think it is fair game to ask about Obama's affinity for a guy whose views are toxic and are precisely what I said they were in that paragraph. It's easy enough for Obama to respond and it might even be politically smart given that Clinton's strategy seems to be working.

Anonymous said...

mike -- why not wait at least two or three comments before throwing out the race card? why so jumpy?

You lefties are always trying to shut down the debate as soon as the starting gates open -- think the inaptly named Fairness Doctrine, for example.

Under your apparent definition of racism, even noticing that a person has a different skin color makes me guilty.

Let's be reasonable here -- in other words, let's not employ same scope of racism used by the original Swift Boater -- Al Sharpton.

Racism: the belief that race accounts for differences in character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others (American Heritage Dictionary, via

Somehow, I fail to see how "criticizing a black person" fits within that definition. Are you that scared of debate?

Rick Esenberg said...

Also - it's not Obama's religion (which is the same as mine) that is the issue but how he sees Wright's view of the implications of that religion.

Mike Plaisted said...

Alright, everyone take a deep breath.

I am not calling Rick a racist. I think that the right-wing talking-point that he is propagating with the Rev. Wright thing is designed to make people uncomfortable with Obama, and that uncomfortable-ness has everything to do with white people trying to judge Cone's liberation theology without having anything they need to be liberated from -- at least not anything like those living with the legacy of slavery and the permanent underclass of the black experience. The Wright "issue" preys on the fear of the unknown, and that unknown is directly linked to a black experience that people don't want to take the time to understand.

Rick acts like this is just some legitimate concern of his, but he refuses to take "yes" for an answer. Not that he should have to, but Obama has already stepped away from Wright and has developed his own message of change and unity that is different from the talking-point's characature of Wright. Not enough, for some reason, but that's the "beauty" of the "issue" for those trying to smear Obama -- they are asking the question they will never allow him to satisfactorily answer.

I think there is a middle ground between race-free and racist arguments, and not all of those that promote racist arguments are racist. There are those "issues" that gain extra power because of the continuing mystery of the racial experience in America, and the Wright "issue" is certainly (at least) that. Those who consciously create "issues" knowing that is the case are using racial fears and ignorance improperly. Those in the RNC who put up this trial balloon certainly know that and Rick is smart enough that he should.

One final note: Saying that someone is playing the "race card" is like saying someone is being "politically correct". It somehow innoculates the perpetrator of the racially-charged talking-point from criticism because the critic has pointed out the racial aspect. Somehow, pointing out the obvious racial aspect is the same (or worse) than using race for political gain itself. It is an interesting and convenient box for those who want to avoid the real issues to try to put critics (like me) in. I don't think that's fair, but, hey, this ain't bean-bag. Right, Rick?

Rick Esenberg said...


If someone planted that story with Richard Cohen, it wasn't the RNC; it was the Clintons.

How do you know that I couldn't be satisfied? Were Obama to say "you know, I think Jeremiah Wright is a good man and loves God, but I don't agree that America is a profoundly racist country or that we move beyond race by emphasizing racial grievance. That approach to these issues will not be part of my administration. He and I just agree to disagree on that" or something like that, I would agree that the question had been answered. People keep telling me that he's done that but I haven't seen it. Show me that and I won't bring it up again.

And, I'm sorry, when you jump all over someone who put the question in the way that I did and start throwing the r-word around, that's playing the race card. It's suggesting that people who disagree with you on matters touching upon race (like the desireability of something like liberation theology) must be racist or are playing into the hands of racist.

If Wright's approach to racial issues is a good thing or Obama has distanced himself from Wright in some way that I have failed to recognize, then you ought to be able to point that out without casting aspersions on people.

I am quite familiar with black liberation theology - as I said I have taught it to law students in a class on law and theology and I am referring (approvingly) to Cone's work in a piece that discusses whether worship can be constitutionally excluded from limited purpose public forums. I understand its origin and appeal, but I think - in 2008 - it is counterproductive and destructive.

Mike Plaisted said...

The RNC fed it to the right-wing NewsMax web-site, among others -- Cohen picked it up to get into one of his anti-Farrakhan screeds. I love that insinuation -- if it's wrong, it must be the Clintons. How convenient. How fact-free.

Why not send your proposed script to Obama and see if he signs off on it? In lieu of that, I think he's done as much as he can to distance himself from something you find so distasteful. Me, I try not to cast too many of my own judgements on people who are still suffering from the legacy of something as criminal as the slave trade -- yes, still, in 2008. I don't think I would look to religious organizations for answers, but what do I know.

A little less sanctimony seems to be called for, but I don't expect that to happen when the Wright "issue" has the kind of traction that can chip away at Obama's high gloss. Any port in a storm for those who need it in the GOP thumping that will be the 2008 election.

Yours in vitriol,