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Will Wright be Obama’s Undoing…and Clinton’s?

In the Barack Obama-Jeremiah Wright affair, a tragedy of sorts is playing itself out before our eyes. We have the first African-American presidential candidate in American history who has a serious chance of capturing the nomination of his party and the presidency itself.

Because of this, there is an underlying nervousness among Americans about what it might mean. This nervousness may be in the process of turning into a backlash much like the one that confronted Martin Luther King is his civil rights struggle in the 1960s and ended with his assassination. There are white people who don’t want a Black man to lead them. They won’t say that, of course. To admit this would generate accusations of racism. And perhaps some of those who have been smearing Obama genuinely see themselves as performing a service to the country by pointing out the candidate’s alleged weaknesses.

There is no doubt that Hillary Clinton is a formidable candidate who brings much to the table and might make a credible president. But there is also no doubt that she and her supporters have helped turn the campaign into Sherman’s March to the Sea, a scorched earth, take-no-prisoner battle to the death. Is Hillary responsible for the unseemly media spectacle that has played itself out over the past four days in which Jeremiah Wright has unburdened himself of so many astonishing (at least to whites) prejudicial notions? Is she responsible for Obama’s chastened speech today in which he renounced his former minister? No, she and her surrogates are not responsible for this proximate event. But they are responsible for much that led up to it. For there would be no controversy–or at least it would be a different level of intensity–if she hadn’t tried to turn it into Obama’s defining “character moment.”

In the Jewish community, the mud has been slung fast and furiously for months now. The latest comes from a major leader in the Los Angeles Jewish community who is a Clinton “bundler” (in the words of Variety’s political blog), Daphna Ziman. She attended a fundraising event addressed by the local director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (and also a black minister). Ziman accused the minister of blaming Jews for the negative portrayal of blacks in Hollywood films. In a subsequent e mail sent to 50,000 of her “closest” Jewish confidants by way of the mailing list of the pro-Israel group, Stand With Us, Ziman called him an anti-Semite and linked him to Rev. Wright. In a separate e-mail, she claimed that Obama’s “movement is out to destroy us [Jews].” This incident was further amplified by the right-wing online news outlet, Pajamas Media and the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Clinton’s campaign hasn’t said a word about Ziman’s outburst (which wasn’t the first time she expressed what I call Jewish Obamaphobia). When the Clinton campaign winks at such hysteria, aided and abetted by Republican groups and conservative media outlets, it makes you wonder just whose side is she on (and just who is on her side)?

I’m astonished that hardly anyone in the U.S. media is asking the question: why is Barack Obama responsible for his minister’s statements or views? Why is Obama a lesser human being or candidate because the leader of the church he belonged to says things others find objectionable? Obama opponents respond by claiming that Obama has identified so closely with Wright that it is legitimate to question whether the former holds the same views as the latter. As Obama correctly noted, Wright is (or now “was”) his minster, not his political advisor. Does anyone seriously believe that Obama will pursue an AIDS policy based on Wright’s views that the U.S. government had the capacity to spread the scourge in the black community? Or that Obama’s policies toward terrorism will be guided by Wright’s views that U.S. terrorism justifies Al Qaeda terrorism against U.S. targets?

You’d have to be a certified paranoiac to believe such things. And it’s the tragedy of this electoral season that many Americans appear to do so.

Since we’re examining the views of Obama’s minister, why doesn’t anyone vet the statements of Hillary Clinton’s or John McCain’s ministers? More importantly, why doesn’t John McCain have to explain the support provided to him by evangelical super-Israel-patriot, John Hagee, who believes Israel and the U.S. should attack Iran; not to mention he hates the Catholic Church (the “Great Whore”) and predicts two-thirds of Jews will be killed in the End Times. I have read many of Hagee’s more outrageous ideas and he’s at least as nutty as Wright, if not more so. Yet McCain hasn’t paid any price.

There is yet another dimension to this tragedy. Barack Obama is an African-American candidate at the heart of whose appeal lies an ability to crossover and engage white, and all voters. His rhetoric is inclusive in a way that no previous African-American candidate’s has been. He doesn’t speak to separate Democratic constituencies or ethnic groups. He almost transcends them. At least, he did until this mess happened.

What Obama’s opponents have done is drag him down into the mud with them. They’ve said: “Not so fast buddy. You think you’re so high and mighty. You think you’re better than us. Well, we’ll teach you a thing or two about American politics. We’ll make you as small as all the rest of us.”

An American presidential candidate usually starts a career by appealing to a particular constituency. In Obama’s case it was the multiracial Chicago community which he represented in the state senate. He has tried to stay true to his African-American roots and constituents during this campaign because otherwise he would lose an important measure of authenticity.

What the Wright debacle has done though, is to threaten to unmoor Obama from his natural constituency. The candidate faces the prospect of not only alienating white voters for allegedly consorting with Wright; he may lose black support by abandoning Wright. You’re damned if you and damned if you don’t.

This is the lonely night of the soul that every presidential candidate faces and dreads. The moment when the fates seem to have turned their backs; when everything you thought was true and right and that motivated you to run is in doubt. I don’t know what the outcome will be. But Obama’s campaign is at a critical juncture. He could still win the nomination or it could just slip away from him. And even if he wins the nomination, these orchestrated attacks may conceivably have irreparably wounded him as a viable candidate in the general election.

If Hillary Clinton thinks she’s going to reap any benefit from all this she may be in for a rude shock. If Obama melts down as a candidate and she wins the nomination, she too will be wounded; perhaps even fatally so. She will certainly have lost the support of much of the black wing of the Party as well as the liberal wing. She will have to go into the general election hoping she can carry moderate-conservative Democratic voters and persuade independents and moderate Republicans to join her. In effect, she would become a version of Joe Lieberman (not exactly a beloved politician these days). In short, I think she would be an unpersuasive and inauthentic candidate. And in her victory, she will have destroyed the candidacy of one of the most promising American politicians to come along in a generation. Not an auspicious way for her to enter a general election campaign.

A slightly different form of this post was published at Comment is Free.

{ 25 comments… add one }
  • Daniel Millstone May 2, 2008, 4:01 AM

    I’ve been an Obama supporter since he declared. Rev. Wright’s bizarre performance has damaged my candidate at a crucial moment. However, I think you err when you suggest that theClinton campaign has been more distructive to Sen. Obama than vise versa. Both campaigns have been appallingly harmful to the prospects of electing someone not John McCain to office in November. Have you observed no negative campaigning by the Obama camp? If
    Sen. Obama’s campaign melts down as a result of Rev. Wright, why will any of us blame Sen. Clinton and why would any of us sit in our tents this fall? How little have we learned from 2000?

  • Daga May 2, 2008, 5:15 AM

    Whatever is written on this topic will hurt Obama’s campaign-so best support for him is the let the beast rest.. The “white America” suffer from cognitiv dissonans..they simply dont want to make amends for the slavery of african or genocide of native americans…Much the same sentiment behind Israels problems vis-à-vis Nakba.
    Whenever mainstream media is “manufacturing consent” about Obama and Wright..compare the two with McCain and Hagee.

  • ellen May 2, 2008, 5:57 AM

    Does anyone really think that Obama would be granted a smooth path to office? It is important to distinguish between what the media would call reality, and what is reality. The “Jeremiah Wright affair” has nothing to do with Wright or Obama. If it wasn’t Wright, something else would be the issue. Evidently they could not turn up some sexual peccadillo, so this issue had to do, until they can find one better. Nobody would have cared about Wright if the media did not make it the story.

    The New York Times and The Washington Post combined have published more than 12 times as many articles mentioning Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. and Sen. Barack Obama as they have mentioning Hagee and McCain. http://mediamatters.org/

  • Norman Weinstein May 2, 2008, 6:57 AM

    Ellen, a big amen to what you say! This is all such utter nonsense, this campaigning by distraction, and of course all aided and abetted by a prostituted mainstream media ever ready to lap up their own vomit like dogs before regurgitating it again. McCain, the grinning fugitive from Dr. Strangelove, and his issues somehow seem singularly immune from the vision of our putative journalists, but then they know what side their toast is buttered on.

  • Andy May 2, 2008, 9:05 AM

    I’m sure that Hillary would have taken a ‘higher road’ had she done better at the polls. Her attacks are understandable; she is out to win, after all.

    As Daga correctly notes, the ‘Wright affair’ says much more about those people who are upset by Wright’s comments than it does about Wright himself; at the risk of overgeneralizing, the American inability to take criticism is a sign of serious weakness. Here’s what I’d like to hear Obama say about Wright: “The Reverend Wright speaks truth to power: that’s what Jesus expects him to do. If you’ve got a problem with this, then you can take it up with God at Judgment Day.”

  • Donald Johnson May 2, 2008, 1:31 PM

    I have a little different perspective. I think you Obama-supporting progressives are deluding yourselves about the man. Wright said some things which were dumb and I don’t blame Obama for distancing himself from the HIV conspiracy crap, for instance. But Obama has also been busy distancing himself from Wright where Wright was correct. In Obama’s overpraised race speech, he specificallly included a line blaming radical Islam for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict–that was in response to Wright’s sermon mentioning Israeli state terror. And in his latest performance, St. Obama tells us that like all good Americans, he is deeply offended by Wright’s tallk of American terrorism. I’m a lot closer to Wright on this than I am to the man who is “transforming politics”. Looks like old-fashioned, flagwaving jingoism to me, wrapped up in pretty words to appeal to the college-educated and NYT editorial writers. (They loved it.) Obama could have made his denunciation more nuanced and stuck to denouncing and disagreeing with Wright on HIV and Farrakhan and perhaps some other things. But he went further and made it clear to the establishment that he’s not one of those crazy folk who thinks that the US or its faithful ally Israel could ever be guilty of terrorism.

    I voted for Obama over Hillary and would do so again, and will take either one over McCain. But you have to be crazy to trust a politician who makes it to this level in a Presidential campaign.

  • Donald Johnson May 2, 2008, 1:38 PM

    Here’s another one of those dangerous black radical demagogues saying un-American things. If Obama ever said anything favorable about this lunatic, he’d better distance himself fast–


  • Katie G. Hope May 2, 2008, 2:28 PM

    The media & right wing pundits have been working relentlessly from the beginning to get Hillary the nomination over Obama.

    For some, it might be his color. For others it might be because they believe McCain won’t be able to beat Hillary. For others it might be because they’d love to have a Clinton back in the WH so they can blame all Bush’s failed policies on their favorite target from yesteryear.

    More & more, Hillary has been borrowing phrases from the Rove handbook to bury Obama & for me, that is the worst slap in the face to the Dem party.

    First the “elitist” nonsense & just today I read where she dragged out the old Hitler & Bush phrase (check, they BOTH used the phrase), “with us or against us.”

    For me, the only candidate I can consider is Obama… he might not have the alleged “experience” that Hillary or McCain have but I’d rather gamble on him surrounding himself with brilliant advisors than gamble on whether we’re voting for a Dem Hillary or a neocon in sheep’s clothing Hillary.

  • Daga May 2, 2008, 3:30 PM

    Donald Johnson

    MLK an “un-american demagogue ? Interesting choice of label-you laps into the rhetorics of senator McCarthy…Personally I fail to see what is wrong in demanding sivil rights and justice for all..even blacks. And he justly ctitizised the numerous US military actions around the world– Maybe you can elaborate what you find unamerican ?

    The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.” -Samuel Huntington, Harvard Professor

    US is becoming more and more fascistoid. One of your great presidents ,Franklin D. Roosevelt said :”The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it comes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group,” :
    Maybe you have not come that far yet . I wouldn’t call it fascism exactly, but a political system nominally controlled by an irresponsible, dumbed down electorate who are manipulated by dishonest, cynical, controlled mass media that dispense the propaganda of a corrupt political establishment can hardly be described as democracy either:

  • Donald Johnson May 2, 2008, 4:05 PM

    Daga, would you please look right above the post you read and see what I said–I agree with Wright that the US and Israel are guilty of terrorism and I am disgusted by Obama’s repudiation of Wright on that point.

    I clearly mentioned Martin Luther King as another example of someone who, if he were alive today, would be in agreement with Jeremiah Wright on that point and in disagreement with Obama. I was engaged in sarcasm, but I also mean it–if Martin Luther King were alive today and giving the same kinds of speeches about Iraq that he gave in 1967 about Vietnam, the Obama campaign would throw him under the bus. So would a great many self-described “progressive” bloggers, as well as the so-called “liberal” NYT.

    I tend to agree with you about the state of American politics. The irony is that in some respects we’ve actually gone backwards. Thomas Jefferson and Abraham LIncoln said harsher things about the US and its practice of slavery than any current politician would dare to say about our practice of torture. Modern day politicians are cowards and panderers and that includes the progressive “hero” Obama.

    That’s my point. Why do people at this blog think so highly of him? He’s a panderer. He pandered to the Israelis when they were killing hundreds of Lebanese civilians in 2006–he pretended to believe it was all due to Hezbollah using human shields, though Human Rights Watch showed that was a lie. The one time in this campaign he’s shown real anger it was towards his friend of 20 years, for having the audacity to imply that Obama might be taking some positions out of political expediency. That’s what arouses his anger–a threat to his climb to the top.

  • Bill Pearlman May 2, 2008, 4:11 PM

    Don, when McCain wins, and he will. Shouldn’t you be on the plane to a country that’s morally superior to the United States, Iran, Zimbabwe possibly.

  • Daga May 2, 2008, 5:00 PM

    Sorry Donald, I jumped the gun (I think thats the expression you use)..sloppy prep. work .
    I agree with you in everything..’cept Obama as a panderer. I would say pragmatist or cynic-a political whore,selling short his idealism to become more electable. The panderer or pimp is AIPAC. I dont understand how a criminal organisation like AIPAC can have such strong holder over american politics,but it is a sad fact that any politican criticizing Israel’s state terrorism might as well write his political obituary.-and herein lies the main problem for US foreign policy. From a distance its unbelieveable that US, the beacon of western culture, the “land of the free” can be terrrorized by zionist hooliganism.

  • Donald Johnson May 2, 2008, 5:18 PM

    Ah, Biill, you loveable old scamp. Maybe you skipped kindergarten, you were that precocious, and never heard the phrase “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Let me know if I need to explain its meaning. On the off-chance that you’re sincere, which I doubt, I despise the governments of Zimbabwe and Iran.

    McCain might very well win. Lots of people to blame for that if it happens, first and foremost the people who vote for him. But the Democrats are doing a good job tearing each other apart, providing talking points for Republicans in the fall (I blame Cliinton more) and though I defend him here to some extent, Wright probably could have chosen his words more carefully or stayed out of the public view, realizing that swing voters just aren’t the type to have their illusions about the US destroyed. I’ve got mixed feelings about that, however. If even private citizens are supposed to keep their mouths shut, how are we supposed to change people’s minds?

    Daga, it’s not just AIPAC. In general, a great many Americans just don’t want to hear that our country isn’t as morally pure as we like to think and our support for Israel’s crimes is just part of the problem. Obama knows this, so he made his cynical calculation and said what he said.

  • ellen May 3, 2008, 4:29 AM

    This “election campaign” is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Before November, there will be either a terrorist attack or (preferably) a ‘credible’ threat of a terrorist attack, and that will be that. Then McCain will be elected, so why are they spending millions of dollars on a sham campaign? That’s right – US must put up a pretense of being a democracy.

    (But jiminy they could have insured all the uninsured 10 times over, with what they’ve spent on the campaign.)

  • Judy May 3, 2008, 7:30 AM

    I am an Obama supporter in spite of the fact that I’m terribly disappointed that he threw Palestinians under the bus in his great race speech. Obama knew Edward Said for heaven’s sake… I certainly hope he knows better than he is leading us to believe with his current statements.

    Having said that, if he does not get the nomination, I might very well sit this election out. Ultimately, what’s the more serious long-range threat to our country: a 4-year McCain term or a Democratic party that is indistinguishable from the ugly right?

    I don’t think I can reward Hillary’s heinous tactics by voting for her in November.

  • bill pearlman May 3, 2008, 9:36 AM

    The thought of a Preident Obama rolling on his back like a little puppy in the face of the Chinese the Iranians the north koreans the russians or any one of our other adversaries is more than a little disconcerting. Putin is going to squash him. The guy is cracking in the primaries for Gods sake because Hillary was what, mean to him.

  • Donald Johnson May 3, 2008, 10:12 AM

    Judy, what you’re saying about Obama is what Wright implied–you hope he is speaking as a politician and not telling us the truth about how he feels on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I hope the same thing. If I can answer my own question, I think it’s what all the progressives who support Obama and yet sympathize with the Palestinians must be thinking. But I’d like to see most Obama supporters say it–it’s been weird, reading some of the liberal Obama-supporting blogs in the past week, attacking Wright not just for the stupid things he said (and he said some stupid things along with some truths), but for saying that Obama speaks as a politician. This whole notion that Obama is somehow better than a mere truth-bending politician is a fantasy and if his appeal rests on that, I think it’s going to come crashing down sooner or later. Republican candidates seem to be able to tell lies and get away with it for much longer than Democrats.

    Obama has Martin Peretz in his corner–somebody on one side of this issue or the other is going to be disappointed if Obama makes it to the White House.

    On Clinton vs. McCain, Clinton is preferable, I think. I’d cut my hand off after voting for her, but she’s preferable. Presidential campaigns are always about choosing the lesser of two evils, IMO. Though you’re also right about the consequences of voting for her–it’s a reward for scummy tactics.

  • Miriam May 3, 2008, 10:59 AM

    WHERE OH WHERE is the mainstream ? or even the minor press readers?? WHY does no one mention the scathing statements of Hagee, Falwell or Robertson ilk? EVEN MORE PECULIAR….what of Hillary’s LONG time association with The Family or otherwise known as the FELLOWSHIP, a closed, even secretive conservative ‘prayer’ group which she joined in 1996 with pals George (Macaca) Allen, Rick Santorum et al? WHY IS NO ONE EVEN TALKING about the superb articles that appeared in HARPERS ? Nation? Mother Jones? or the piece that Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about Hillary and The Family?? ANYTHING that ‘upset’ white america about Wright would be tripled by that Clinton Prayer group think, IMO….

  • Richard Silverstein May 3, 2008, 3:47 PM

    The guy is cracking in the primaries for Gods sake because Hillary was what, mean to him.

    We’ll find out soon enough after N. Carolina & Indiana. And if I’m right you’ll be eatin’ a lotta crow, Billy boy.

    You’re in fantasy land about McCain. If he does win then I’ll have an even lower opinion about the avg. American voter than I already have.

  • Suzanne May 3, 2008, 5:14 PM

    Actually I heard that Obama is holding up quite well in the polls considering . My prediction is that we will be sick and tired of this Rev. Wright thing soon enough and that the super-delegates are paying more attention to Hillary’s pandering on the gas tax thing than this.

    Bill Moyer’s was good last night on this- featured on Dkos and YouTube- on this whole thing. He blames the media ( of course and not without good cause). But also he asks or wishes for some understanding- a stretch for many.

    We can ( I can) fault Obama here and there but hey folks he is running for President in the same America that elected GWB twice. Or if you prefer, as I do you can say that twice it was too damn close when it should not have been. So one run’s to the electorate we have. After is the time to lead. I would say Obama is doing pretty well considering. After a point, it’s not in his hands. This is a test on us. Far and away he is the best of the three.

    Richard- a well written entry, thanks.

  • Donald Johnson May 4, 2008, 12:05 PM

    Fault Obama here or there? He’s either lying about his views on Israel (making him a politician, just as Wright said) or he’s in AiPAC’s corner.
    He’s a very bright man and he listens to a lot of different views. He’s also willing to tell people just what they want to hear–he’s very very good at this, as both Martin Peretz and the people here think he’s in their corner on Israel. That’s what politicians do. We won’t know what he really thinks until he gets into office–well, we won’t know then either, but we’ll be able to judge his actions.

    I have never understood the need many people have to believe in a political candidate. Politicians are not the kind of thing you should have faith in. You vote for the best available and expect them to lie.

  • Suzanne May 5, 2008, 4:15 PM

    If Obama is telling people what they want to hear, then he is telling them more of the right things, in my view, than Clinton who is also telling people what they want to hear. But I do not get the sense that Obama is constantly sticking his wet finger up to see which way the wind is blowing. I do feel that way about Hillary.

    I started out feeling that Obama was not seasoned enough. But Hillary was not my choice. Edwards was. And it was not about experience either. It was about the person underneath the issues. So over time and after Edwards dropped out, I began to focus on Obama’s qualities. His intelligence, manner and sensibility are far more appealing than the other two running. If he is lying about his views on Israel then he is playing to realities out there. I don'[t love that but I don’t see why he has to shoot himself in the foot by failing some litmus test about the survival of israel- though he can still believe AIPAC’s is a wrongheaded approach. Perhaps we should parse his words more carefully. In any case politicians are not a “kind of thing” and I would rather not fall into the frame of mind that can’t believe that there can be dramatic improvement with the right choice. Every candidate ls NOT as purposely deceptive as every other.

  • Donald Johnson May 6, 2008, 10:29 AM

    This happens to me a lot–I say that one shouldn’t trust Obama because he is a politician and someone then tells me that this doesn’t mean they are all the same.

    Agreed. That’s why I voted for Obama in the primary and want him to beat Hillary, and would take either of them over McCain.
    But he’s a politician and as for my insult (referring to politicians as “a kind of thing”), if that’s a distraction, then I regret it. But the statements Obama has made on Israel’s human rights violations fully deserve contempt. That’s the problem with getting overly enthusiastic about politicians. They need people who will hold them to account for the lies they tell on human rights, and if people on websites like this aren’t going to hold them accountable, then no one will.

  • Daga May 6, 2008, 11:48 AM

    For democracy to function after its intentions you need an informed electorate. You have in US what I call a dysfunctional democracy. A dumb down and “outfoxed” constituency, seemingly resigned from the political discourse and prefer soap-operas and reality-shows. Interspersed the latest scandal from Hollywood…”Panem and Circenses” and “Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant.” Like the old roman emperors, Give the public bread and circuses” and they die willingly for their leader.
    To run for office in US, at any level or position you need at least need at least $1 mill. There you already have sorted out 99% of the population ,unless the candidate is willing to sell his integrity to the highest bidder.

    In Norway we have political discussions on TV almost every day..where political leaders, industrial leaders and various pundits participate. Of course our politicians lies too, that is an “occupational hazard”, but his chances to get away with it are slim

    As far as I can see is your only road to salvation to reduce the power of media ( maybe internet will help you there ) , get money out of the elections and finally get religion out of politics and politics out of religion..

  • Donald Johnson May 6, 2008, 12:39 PM


    I’m probably not making my case very well. I’m too disgusted and there is probably too much anger in my posts, which in turn probably makes them more obnoxious than persuasive. But I think my underlying point is valid–politicians, even the best of them, need supporters who will tell them they are dead wrong on some issues.

    I agree with most of what daga says, though I don’t think religion is necessarily the main problem. It depends on what sort of political conclusions people draw from their religious beliefs (or secular or philosophical beliefs). If we had clergy like Desmond Tutu speaking out in our country, I’d want more religion in politics. It comes down to what sort of thing is being said, not whether a person is secular or not. Some of the biggest warmongers in public life these days (like Christopher Hitchens) are vehemently anti-relligion.

    And in the current case, on some issues (not all), I think Wright is right and Obama isn’t. I wish that in the recent uproar Obama’s liberal supporters had been more detached, supporting Obama as needed, but conceding that Wright wasn’t off-base in some of what he’s said (on Israel and US foreign policy in general). Instead, Wright was demonized.

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