Obama speech can't mask phoniness
But, excellent speech though it was, there are still important questions about what he's doing affiliated with an Afro-centric church whose pastor rails against whites and that teaches its parishioners as part of a Black Value System to "withstand warping by our racist competitive society" and to disavow "the pursuit of 'middleclassness'".
It never seemed likely that Barack Obama shared his pastor's bitter feelings or bizarre conspiracy theories. His life has been a relatively privileged one. His biological father was no victim of racism, but rather an economist who worked for an oil company before holding a senior position in the Kenyan government. Obama was raised in Indonesia and Honolulu, eventually graduating from Columbia University and earning a law degree at Harvard. Son of a black sharecropper he ain't.
So, what is he doing at Trinity?
The answer, to anybody who watches politicians, is obvious. Trinity is a huge church -- one of the largest in the Chicago area. Sitting in its pews, mixing with its parishioners and courting its pastor is an excellent way to build a base for seeking political office while appearing dutifully religious in this god-crazed country. Politicians play the religion card all the time, choosing the "right" congregation from which to build a political base and in which to appear dutifully faithful. They do this despite the fact that the deity worshipped by most office-seekers is raw power, and its church is government.
Obama probably shares the same private faith as most other politically ambitious Americans. But, like his peers, he professes the faith that he believes will serve him best.
Of course, membership in the Trinity United Church of Christ has become something of a liability, but that would have been hard to predict twenty years ago when Obama was embarking on his career. Just four years ago, he was a state senator from a district in Chicago with no reason to believe that association with Rev. Wright would prove a hindrance rather than a help. Nobody had yet had reason to dig into his associations, and he'd encountered few shots across the bow from local journalists or political opponents that would cause him to rethink his past decisions. Rising like a skyrocket can leave even the brightest politician scrambling to reinvent himself.
And reinvent himself is exactly what he's trying to do. He's jamming two decades worth of distancing, clarifying, hedging and providing context into a couple of speeches and interviews. And he's doing a damned good job.
But this process of reinventing in public view may undo him where spurious concerns about bigotry and cranky views could not. Obama's main attraction to-date has been the air of sincerity and freshness he exudes. Nobody is shocked that Hillary Clinton maintains a politically motivated marriage with a compulsive philanderer and switches accents depending on the audience she's addressing -- that's what we expect of a creature who so obviously lives for power. And John McCain's kicking one wife to the curb so he can marry a wealthier, better-connected woman is just old hat for a man who so obviously believes he's born to rule. But Obama draws crowds on the implicit promise that he's an idealist who cares about people and means what he says.
But the association with Trinity and Rev. Wright suggests a colder, more calculating man, one who's capable of choosing a church and tolerating the noxious beliefs of its pastor for political gain. Obama may seem so relatively untainted not because he's a better person than his opponents, but because his fast rise hasn't required the same long years of rolling in the muck and making terrible compromises required of virtually everybody else who has risen to high office -- and because the rolling and compromising he has done is only now surfacing.
All things being equal, Obama is no better or worse than the other major contenders for the presidency; he's much as they are.
But Clinton supporters and backers of McCain have made their peace with their chosen candidates' serious moral failings and deep cynicism; Obama's constituents flocked to him because they thought he was different. Can they maintain their enthusiasm for the candidate after discovering that he's as big a phony as the rest?
The coming weeks will tell.
Labels: popularity contest