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.