Perhaps the most surprising thing about the closely contested Democratic presidential race has been how long it took for all the dirty laundry to be aired. Barack Obama, of course, set a tone early on that made it impossible for him to throw the first punch. But the vaunted Clinton political machine either enjoys a wildly undeserved reputation for effectiveness or has been thrown off its game by the racial dynamics of the 2008 campaign.
We are only now, after most of the country has already voted, hearing about comments made several years ago by Senator Obama's one-time pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Reverend Wright took to the pulpit to suggest that the United States was partly responsible for its own misfortune, citing America's supposed support for "state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans" and comparing al Qaeda's atrocities to the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. And then, two years later, he said this:
"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."
Let's first acknowledge the unfairness of judging Obama by the vilest words spoken by what seems to be an otherwise admirable man. Barack Obama did not make these statements nor does he agree with them. This is, in many ways, just a continuation of the back and forth gotcha campaign that has tarnished this race for the past week or so. First, Samantha Power, then Geraldine Ferraro, and now Jeremiah Wright. It appears that this unhelpful bloodletting will not cease so long as there is a Democratic campaign operative somewhere ready to engage foot and mouth together.
On the other hand, these particular verbal indiscretions are potentially far more damaging than those that came before. Reverend Wright is not just some name on a five-page list of Obama supporters. He is, instead, one of the most significant figures in the senator's life, the man who led him to the Christian faith. Given that his religious devotion has been such an important element of Obama's remarkable and appealing personal narrative, the role of his spiritual adviser is, in many ways, even more consequential than that of his foreign policy adviser.
Even worse, of course, are the remarks themselves. There are few precincts in the fifty states where people will react well to a man of the cloth uttering the words "God damn America". Indeed, had all this been known two or three months ago, I suspect that Hillary Clinton might now be enjoying a McCain-like victory lap with the nomination well in hand.
Obama has denounced Reverend Wright's words, as he must, though he apparently has known about them for at least a few months now. He also--bravely, in my opinion--refuses to condemn the man himself. One of the great truths of real life (as opposed to the one-strike-and-you're-out fishbowl of presidential politics) is that we all know and love people who hold dreadful thoughts of ignorance and prejudice. We understand that the sum of a person is not limited to his or her worst outbursts or darkest reveries.
Still, in a political sense, this has the potential to be a bombshell. It will almost certainly be the Republicans' plan to subtlely paint Obama as an exotic figure, a man who spent much of his childhood in a foreign land and lacks a deep-seated devotion to his country. He's the guy who rejects the American flag lapel pin, who refused to place his hand over his heart during the national anthem, whose wife claims only recently to be proud of her country. That these charges are, in the main, slanderous doesn't mean that they won't be effective. Just ask Michael Dukakis.
Obama can weather this, of course, and he is certainly fortunate that the story broke when it did. But trouble will almost certainly loom if it can be verified that the senator was in attendance at any event at which angry or controversial words were spoken by Reverend Wright. Obama insists that he was not present during the sermons discussed above. Nevertheless, we can be confident that GOP operatives are hard at work trying to uncover evidence that the Democratic frontrunner was in the pew to witness any other incendiary comments the minister may have offered to his flock.
Meanwhile, the Super Delegates will await the verdict of public opinion and will react accordingly. Obama supporters have every reason to face the coming week with some apprehension. So do all people who hope for a Democratic victory in November.