I've now watched Rev. Jeremiah Wright's speech to the Detroit NAACP and his National Press Club appearance this morning. I've also read all 632 (and counting) letters in reply to my Sunday post about Wright's conversation with PBS's Bill Moyers. And in response, I'd like to retract something I wrote on Sunday. Here's the section I regret:
"One thing about my reaction surprised me. I had seen short clips and I was prepared to argue that Wright is a stone-cold narcissist, unprepared to let Obama surpass him, uninterested in whether he's wrong. But Moyers' interview made me see how hurt Wright is. He's genuinely wounded, and I felt sorry for him."
I regret that I hedged my observation about Wright's narcissism. He may be wounded, but this is a man of enormous self-regard, and he's clearly trying to hurt Barack Obama. His national rehabilitation tour started fairly sympathetically with the Moyers conversation, but it's devolved into self-pity and self-glorification ever since. His Sunday night talk to the NAACP was mostly silly, from the questionable science behind his insistence that black children are right-brained (creative) while white children are left-brained (logical and analytical) to his mocking the way white people talk, dance, clap, worship and sing. I understand and agree with Wright's notion that "different is not deficient," but mocking white people, including JFK and LBJ, doesn't seem like the best way to get his point across (yes, he was talking to the NAACP, but he knew -- and relished -- that he had a national audience). At his Monday speech he insisted attacks on him were really an attack on the black church, a typically Wright-centric view of the world, while his security was reportedly provided by the Nation of Islam.
Let me say that I don't believe Barack Obama believes any of the offensive things Wright said or reiterated on his revenge tour: that the government gave black people AIDS, that the black and white children are different in the way Wright says, that 9/11 was an example of Jesus' teaching "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But questions will dog Obama about how someone with his expansive view of racial justice sat in a pew listening to Wright for 20 years.
Unfortunately, Obama's best defense is probably a politically unpalatable truth: He didn't pay that much attention. I think the truth is that Obama was and is a fairly secular guy who (according to "Dreams From my Father") was trying to organize black churches in the 1980s and heard from more than one black preacher that he needed to find himself a church to have credibility. He looked around and found Wright's, which was the fastest-growing black church in the area. He liked its social gospel, it helped his standing in the community, and so he joined. We may never know how often he attended, but he stayed for 20 years.
Clearly it was bad judgment to stay with the church, given Wright's divisive views, once Obama knew he had national political ambitions. But what, if anything, can Obama say now to limit the political damage? We've asked some smart political and cultural analysts what they think Obama should do, and we'll be bringing that to you asap.