19 March 2008 - What Obama should have said
I am in no way comparing Barack Obama to P.W. Botha, the prime minister of South Africa in the 1980s who came to symbolize the stubbornness of the evil that was apartheid. But on August 15, 1985, Botha was expected to “cross the Rubicon” and deliver a groundbreaking speech in which he would commit to sweeping democratic reforms, the release of Nelson Mandela, and the beginning of a new era of freedom.
Instead, the “Rubicon” speech was a disaster. Botha was petulant when he should have been compromising, arrogant where he should have been humble. He resorted to old, tired ideas when the occasion demanded new imagination and courage. The result of Botha’s speech was to galvanize international opposition to apartheid. It would fall to his successor, F. W. de Klerk, to launch the new era, five years later.
Obama’s speech yesterday in Philadelphia had a similar effect. He had been expected to dispel, once and for all, any question that he sympathized with the hateful, racist anti-Americanism of his pastor, Jeremiah A. Wright. Instead, he failed to break with Wright, and used the occasion to attack his political enemies and to revisit a frayed list of racial grievances. For Obama, this is the beginning of the end.
His supporters are crowing about what a triumph the speech was, how historic and how groundbreaking. The hype and hyperbole are a sign of the deep insecurity they rightly feel about what was revealed today. Senator Obama 1) did not apologize; 2) did not break with Wright; 3) did not provide a way forward. He did not quote the Bible even once—quite astonishing, given that religion is at the heart of this affair.
Many others have already dissected the speech and attacked its flaws: the false moral equivalence between Wright’s public hate speech and the private racism of Obama’s grandmother; the attempt to duck responsibility for twenty years of silence in the pews; the implication that all black churches preach the same gospel of resentment; above all, the lack of genuine humility, honesty and vision.
Here’s what I think Obama should have said—in a short, unpretentious statement:
“The Bible teaches us, in Ephesians 4:31: ‘Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.’ My faith is one that teaches forgiveness. Not just for individuals, but for nations. Not just for the righteous, but for those who have not yet found the way to the truth and the light.
“The Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright played an important role in my life. He led me to a deeper connection with my Christian faith. For that, I will be eternally grateful. I reached out to him not just to discover what I believed, but who I am. But when he condemned white Americans, when he blamed America for the terrible events of 9/11, when he damned America itself, I should have spoken up, or walked away.
“I did not. And for that, I apologize and ask the forgiveness of my family, my fellow congregants, and the American people. The truth is that I did not raise my voice because I was afraid. I was afraid that my friends and neighbors would turn away from me—not only because of what I believe but because of who I am, a man of mixed parentage in a country still struggling to come to terms with its past.
“My mistake was to underestimate the people around me. For in silencing myself I failed to trust them. I failed to trust the decency of the people who prayed with me. I failed to appeal to their sense of right and wrong. I also failed to give Reverend Wright the chance to change his ways. I failed to challenge him to refine his faith, the way he once challenged me to search for mine. For that, I am truly sorry.
“I will now be leaving the Trinity United Church of Christ. Some may see this as political expediency. I leave them to judge as they will. For my own part, I can only say that I am still finding my way to God. I have the privilege of serving in the U.S. Senate. I have been a successful lawyer. I have been blessed. But in religion I am still a beginner. And so I must continue searching, continue reaching for answers.
“One thing that I have learned is to love another human being in spite of his or her mistakes. And so in leaving Reverend Wright’s church I wish him no ill will. But I have realized—as I have met so many Americans, from so many walks of life, in the course of this campaign—that our country is far bigger than the one he has portrayed. Ours is a land of hope, a land of true freedom and opportunity.
“I would like to thank my opponents in this election for the grace they have shown me by not exploiting this issue to political advantage. I am sorry for the hurt this has caused my supporters and all Americans, of all faiths. I hope that this episode will herald a new start for this campaign: a movement towards a better kind of politics, the kind of politics in which leaders can learn from their mistakes.
“Let us now go forth and continue the work of this great democracy, this land that God has blessed.”
That, at least, is what I would have said. But it’s too late, and even though I’m a solid McCain supporter I am sorry to see Obama self-destruct like this.
UPDATE: Also, Obama seems to have caught himself in a lie, or at least a hedge.
Last week he said:
"The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation. When these statements first came to my attention, it was at the beginning of my presidential campaign. I made it clear at the time that I strongly condemned his comments."
Yesterday he said:
"Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed."
So... which is it?
And also, why bring everyone else's pastor, rabbi, etc. into it?
This is really rather sad.