Thursday, March 20, 2008

The intellect versus the visceral

Millions of Americans, and certainly the media commentariat, were bedazzled by Barack Obama's eloquent and gutsy plea for racial reconciliation. Forty-eight hours later, however, it's time to return to the nuts and bolts world of practical politics - as distasteful as this exercise may be - and ask whether his speech has erased the questions voters might have concerning his relationship with the Rev. Jerimiah Wright. Is he in the clear, or not?


Ideally, from Obama's perspective, his speech would be read in its entirety by one and all, thereby magically transforming our civic dialogue and human nature itself. Americans of all racial and ideological persuasions would suddenly rise above their basest petty suspicions and march together on the high road. Our politicians would travel that path as well, aiming their messages at the intellect, not the gut.

But here in the real world, where the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once ruminated about the "nasty, brutish" nature of our species; a world where journalists are expected to probe rather than swoon; a world where many voters will always be guided by their visceral instincts, certain nagging questions about the Obama-Wright connection still remain:

1. Why did Obama wait until his speech to admit that, yes, he had indeed heard Wright utter incendiary remarks during church sermons - after previously claiming that he had not heard anything of the sort? Why is he now characterizing certain Wright remarks as inflammatory and even ignorant, whereas, in Ohio earlier this month, he said that "I don't think my church is actually particularly controversial"? These questions go to the issue of credibility.

2. What specific incendiary remarks did he personally listen to, and did he ever make it clear to Wright or other church leaders that those remarks were inappropriate or worse? What provocative comments, uttered when he was not in attendance, did he nevertheless learn about, and did he lodge any private protests against them? As an influential Illinois political leader, did he ever share any concerns with fellow congregants? These questions go to the issues of character, judgment, and leadership.

Obama did explain, at some length in his speech the other day, that Wright's rhetorical excesses should be viewed in a broader context, as the bitter utterances of an African American who grew to manhood at a time when whites were systematically relegating blacks to second-class status. It was a worthy argument. However, a lot of white working-class voters will not embrace that argument; fairly or not, a lot of them don't want to hear anymore about how blacks were suppressed in the past. Obama's argument may play well with highly-educated white liberals in the Philadelphia suburbs - but not with lunch-bucket whites in northeast Philadelphia and in the downtrodden towns that are the swing battlegrounds in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary. That's just reality.

His full speech text was an appeal to the intellect, but the short-hand version of this affair packs a visceral punch. Some voters will simply reduce it all to a few sentences: Why didn't Obama, upon hearing something vile or hateful, simply get up and walk out? How could Obama stick by a reverend who stands in the pulpit and says "God damn America?"

(Dick Morris, the ex-Clinton pollster, suggested the other day that Obama stuck with Wright for old fashioned earthbound political reasons: "Because he's a black Chicago politician who comes from a mixed marriage and went to Columbia and Harvard. Suspected of not being black enough or sufficiently tied to the minority community, he needed the networking opportunities Wright afforded him in his church to get elected. If he had not risen to the top of Chicago black politics, we would never have heard of him. But obviously, he can't say that.")

Anyway, I suspect that these questions will also be a concern for many Jewish voters, particularly those who are strong supporters of Israel and who are now aware that Wright once accused Israel of practicing "state terrorism against the Palestianians." Jewish voters may not be particularly numerous - just three or four percent of the national electorate - but they are highly concentrated in the big electoral states, and they are loyal Democratic donors. They will also vote heavily in Philadelphia and its suburbs on April 22 - the region where Obama needs overwhelming support.

Obviously, they're not all obsessed with Israel. My point is that, if Obama has any hopes of winning Pennsylvania, or blunting Hillary Clinton's victory margin, he can ill afford any erosion in the populous southeastern corner of the state. And it's worth noting that, according to the exit polls thus far, Clinton has bested Obama among Jewish voters, 52 to 46 percent.

William Galston, a longtime Democratic activist/scholar who likes Obama, nevertheless addressed Jewish concerns in an online commentary the other day: "I attend a small synagogue in Washington D.C. When my rabbi says something controversial, the entire congregation quickly learns about it. Members who are offended do not remain silent. They often reprove him. Some threaten to leave unless he apologizes and changes course. A few have left to join other congregations...Successful leaders must know when to draw lines and say no. They must accept that, as they do so, they will leave some people out and make enemies...I do not believe Senator Obama yet understands how questionable (his refusal to reject Wright) appears to many Americans..."

All told, Galston wrote, these nagging concerns "present a window on his character and help us judge what kind of president he would be." And the problem for Obama is that there are few other windows available. He is so new to the national scene, and still such a blank slate to so many low-information voters, that an issue this visceral becomes all the more magnified. His words on Tuesday were magnificient, but one speech can't remake the world.