On the radio right now, a commentator is comparing Obama to Martin Luther King and the apostle Paul.
At the same time, Thomas Sowell dismisses the speech as “facile election year rhetoric.” (We should be so lucky to get this kind of courage and thoughtfulness in any election year.)
Having skimmed a dozen or so columns responding to the speech, I’m surprised to find some people still calling for Obama to “distance himself” more from Rev. Wright. Anyone following this blog over the past year knows my contempt for demagogues and race hustlers, but in my view Obama did all the distancing he needs to do while realistically reminding us that we all exist in webs of community with each other, and that we all share ties to people with whom we don’t fully agree.
I also thought he did a masterful job of showing that we always look both backward and forward in our lives, both personally and collectively. We all have a past that contains our failures, our blindness, and our cruelty as well as our real and potential good. Nobody is a blank slate. If we’re going to build a better life, as individuals and as citizens, we’re going to do it with our flawed, imperfect natures. That’s the baggage we all bring on the journey.
As for the charges of political opportunism and those who ask why Obama didn’t do this speech earlier, I think that’s a bit naive. Of course the speech was in part an attempt at damage control. Of course Obama hopes it will help him politically. All politicians behave politically. All of them hope their words and actions will find favor with voters. How is that surprising? But I defy anyone to read this entire speech and dismiss it as nothing more than a short-term scramble for political survival. If that was his only aim, the speech would be far different.
Lots of work beckons today, but I’ll have some more to say on this remarkable speech, including Obama’s hope that we put black anger into a historical context.