Wright's interview with Bill Moyers, which I wrote about in my last post, was followed by a speech and in-depth question and answer session by Wright at the National Press Club yesterday. As I wrote in that last post of mine, Wright’s points in the Moyers interview seemed to be valid; Moyers also provided lengthy clips of Wright's sermons, offering a more complex view of some of his highly criticized comments. At the National Press Club however, mainly in the Q & A period, he talked a good deal more about the political side of things. I’ve been trying to sort through some of the videos of it all to make some sense of it, and while I may write more later, I have some more immediate thoughts here.
At first, after watching Wright's Q & A session and Obama's response (both of which I'll include video of below), I was a bit confused. Wright said a number of things that were slight digs against Obama, such as comments about how he (Obama) did not hear the hope in Wright's speeches, and did not go to church with great frequency. But the comment with the most potential for political damage was, appropriately, political in nature. Wright had mentioned on Moyers' show Friday night that, in distancing himself from Wright, Obama was "doing what politicians do," but left it at that. At the National Press Club however, he expressly said that Obama was doing what he had to do "to get elected."
That was, for me, plausible. As anyone whose candidate comes in the line of fire wants to think, my first reaction was that Wright's comments simply weren't true. But of course, thinking that doesn't make it so. So I asked myself whether the reasons Obama provided for distancing himself from Wright seemed valid to me, or not. My sense of the situation crystallized a bit when I looked back at part of the speech Obama gave when he first fully addressed the issue of Rev. Wright, along with the issue of race, in Pennsylvania last month.
Within that speech, Obama describes one of the key reasons he decided to distance himself from Wright:
But to return to our question about Wright's claim, is Obama just saying what's necessary to be elected? To claim that implies that Obama is lying, or at least intentionally misleading. Certainly what Obama has said about Wright has helped assuage the worries of many potential supporters, but does that mean he was lying, or being misleading?
Well, I haven’t heard the comments Wright made concerning Israel, but in terms of his thoughts on white racism, I do indeed think that some of those thoughts gave the impression that white racism is "endemic," as Obama put it. I looked up a short clip on a sermon of Wright's where he talks some about Hillary Clinton, along with whites in general. In watching it, I did get the sense that he was painting whites in a pessimistic, fatalistic fashion. He makes a number of comments about African Americans that are undoubtedly true, noting that whites do not know what it’s like for a taxi to pass them by because of their color, or to be pulled over by the police because of the way they look.
These points are ones that I think Obama was making in similar fashions in his speech, but the difference is that Obama clearly attempted to see things from both the black and white perspective. As I mentioned in my first post on Obama’s “race speech,” he accurately speaks about the black and the white perspective on race, without demonizing either. The above sermon of Wright’s that I watched, available here, does not attempt to see things from both sides, in my view, and therefore comes across as demonizing in ways. I don’t think that means Wright hates whites, or anything that extreme, I think it simply means that he, in some ways, was not attempting to see things from both sides; Obama even pointed this out during his Pennsylvania speech, noting that he never saw Wright treat a white person unkindly, etc.
To wrap my thoughts up here, I would say that the whole issue here may come down to empathy. Both Obama and Wright are looking at problems, not of race, but of races--that is, problems that involve both blacks and whites. In order to do so fairly and progressively, both sides need to be considered. Do not hear me wrong though, these problems began, and to the extent that they still exist, have in many ways been perpetuated, at the hands of whites. But of course many whites do not accept these problems, passionately wanting, along with blacks and others, to see things change. It seems Obama is looking hopefully (to use "his" word) at this reality, acknowledging the problems at hands, and saying, “let’s move onto solutions.” Wright, on the other hand, in some ways at least, appears to be focusing more on the problems. There may be more to this puzzle, but those are some initial thoughts. The key videos from Wright yesterday, and Obama today, are below.
Wright at the National Press Club for Q&A, part 1 (again, he gave a speech that preceded the Q&A session, but from what I saw, he talked politics for the most part afterwards in response to questions):
Wright at the National Press Club for Q&A, part 2:
Wright at the National Press Club for Q&A, part 3:
Obama's response to Wright's National Press Club comments:
Above photo credit: Chip Somodevilla for Getty images, all rights reserved.