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Wright's Gift to the Right

By Clarence Page

Early reactions to Sen. Barack Obama's Big Speech in Philadelphia about his pastor and spiritual advisor of 20 years, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., sound like a mixed review. "It was a nice speech about race," the conventional wisdom goes, "but what about that nutty preacher?"

Indeed, why was the Illinois senator delivering his brilliantly crafted argument for a renewed national dialogue on race at this moment in his campaign? Because goofy-sounding video clips were popping up all over television and the Internet of his Chicago pastor shouting nuggets like, "God damn America for treating its citizens as less than human!"

To stop the spreading damage and reassure his supporters, Obama delivered his most important speech since the blockbuster that launched him into the national spotlight at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

His new Big Speech elegantly and forcefully steered the conversation from Wright's divisive sound bites to the nation's larger divide over race, culture and class that feed anger, fears, resentments and suspicions along racial lines.

Obama showed empathy for grievances held by folks on both sides of the color line.

He ended with an eloquent plea for all Americans to avoid letting the few things about us that are different get in the way of the many pressing concerns that we have in common - such as jobs, schools, health care and the Iraq war.

The speech no doubt reassured his supporters, including the critical super-delegates. They look increasingly like the ones who will choose whether Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton, who remain locked in a tight contest, will be the Democratic nominee.

But this Big Speech offered little to win over new converts, mainly because of nagging questions about Obama's preacher.

And will the address reach beyond Obama's base? Considering how few people were likely to take the time to hear or read Obama's speech, I was reminded of the famous story about another Illinoisian, two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. When a woman exclaimed to the former Illinois governor that "Every thinking American is voting for you," he responded, "That's not enough, madam, I need a majority."

So does Obama. That majority became harder for him to achieve after Wright's roar hit the airwaves and the web.

A Fox News poll released two days after Obama's Big Speech indicated that most Americans do not believe Obama shares the controversial views of his spiritual mentor, but 35 percent said their relationship raised doubts about the senator.

Among Democrats surveyed, 26 percent said the relationship raised doubts about Obama, while 66 percent said it did not.

And when polls ask whether Obama should leave the church even now, the answers come back with a racial divide that eerily resembles reactions to the "not guilty" verdict O. J. Simpson's murder trial. Most whites think Obama should leave, while most blacks think he should stay loyal to the minister who Obama says led him to Jesus and presided at his wedding.

I'm sure that poll reflects the South Side of Chicago, where Rev. Wright has been a well-respected man for decades. He came to Trinity United Church of Christ in 1972 and built it from about 80 members to a reported membership of 8,000.

Most media, Obama says, have not shown the side of Wright that ABC's "Nightline" showed in a video clip after Obama's speech. It showed a preacher of much quieter temperament praying aloud to a racially mixed group, "Oh, God, we come from many different places and different races, but we are of one race, the human race."

Having heard Rev. Wright at his church before the Obama flap erupted, I can see what Obama means. Unfortunately, the fiery sound bite gets a lot more attention than the quiet, reflective minister.

The irony for Obama, who grew up a biracial kid in Hawaii, Indonesia and rural Kansas, is that he met Wright while working as a community organizer and trying to get a better handle on black American culture in the 1980s. Now pundits ask whether Obama, who has won more white than black votes numerically, is "too black" to win many more white votes.

Quit the church, many tell him, but I don't think that will solve his problem. His critics will continue to ask why he stayed so long. Others would charge him with being a disloyal cynic who quit for political expediency. Obama's best bet is to hope Americans get a chance to see that better side of Wright, the side that can soften the image of the crazy preacher. In the meantime, Obama finds himself ironically trapped in the racial divide that many still hope he is uniquely qualified to heal.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

Copyright 2008, Tribune Media Services

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