Posted on Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Some weeks ago, this column asked a rhetorical question: What could
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama possibly have been
thinking about, sitting in a Chicago pew for 20 years listening to the
crackpot effusions of Rev. Jeremiah Wright? Surely the one-time editor
of the Harvard Law Review didn’t subscribe to Wright’s delusional view
that the U.S. government invented the AIDS virus to exterminate black
Africans, so why did he expose his children to it under God’s authority?
Unlike many observers who swooned over Obama’s moving speech about race,
I thought it ducked the most salient question: Did he actually buy
Wright’s theology? His successive rationalizations failed to satisfy.
First, he hadn’t heard the offending sermons. Then he’d heard things he
disagreed with, but thought of Wright like an eccentric uncle. Finally,
Obama said he’d have quit the church had his spiritual mentor not
retired. “Anybody named Clinton or Gore who sat still for something like
that,” this column observed, “would be derided as an inauthentic phony
patronizing black folk for political gain—a faker, a con man.”
Predictably, this unfashionable observation drew accusations of racism.
I responded by e-mailing news reports of Obama’s final renunciation of
Wright. As the candidate himself had now thrown the controversial
preacher overboard, was it still racist to criticize him? Nobody
The national media declared the controversy settled. The caravan moved
on. My rhetorical question, however, remained unanswered until last
week, when Obama gave an off-the-cuff response to a questioner at a
$2,000-per-person fundraiser in, yes, San Francisco who asked, in
effect, how Mr. Hope could possibly be having trouble selling his vision
to Pennsylvania voters. Obama apparently didn’t think he was being
recorded. Being a black man named Barack Obama, he allowed, was only
part of the problem.
“[O]ur challenge,” he continued, “is to get people persuaded that we can
make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives.
You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of
small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and
nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton
administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive
administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna
regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get
bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t
like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way
to explain their frustrations.”
Like the poor, deluded peasants in Wright’s congregation, in short,
rednecks out in the boondocks cling to superstition, bigotry and
conspiracy theories because the world’s too complicated for them to
understand. Never mind that Obama’s been touring Pennsylvania touting
his own religious piety and opposition to NAFTA, or that Sen. Hillary
Clinton seized upon his remarks with the awkward zeal of a basset hound
pouncing on a pork chop. A more perfect expression of
pseudo-Marxist/academic cant—or a greater gift to Sen. John McCain and
the Republicans—would be hard to imagine.
This is what Democrats get if they choose an inexperienced
faculty-lounge lizard as their presidential candidate. People tend to
assume that a black candidate has a lot of street sense, but Obama
increasingly comes off as a classic Ivy League brainiac too impressed by
his own SAT scores to change a tire without delivering an oration on the
economics of rubber tree cultivation.
Since 1968, when Richard Nixon put his famous “Southern strategy” into
play, two big themes have kept the GOP in the White House most of the
time: race along with class and regional resentment. In seeking to
transcend the former, Obama has handed them the latter on a silver
platter. Republicans won’t have to caricature him as a condescending
snob who looks down on working stiffs. He’s already done it to himself.
Sheltered, cosseted and treated as a wonder of nature most of his life,
Obama’s never run against a tough opponent, and it’s showing.
Obama’s attempts to joke his way out of this mess amuse only the already
converted. No, Clinton’s not a very convincing huntress, but she
certainly knows that nobody goes duck hunting with a “six-shooter.” For
pointing these things out, the Clinton campaign, hitherto run on strict
standards of political correctness—too timid even to point out that it
was Obama’s fellow Chicagoan and national co-chair Jesse Jackson, Jr.
who “radicialized” the campaign by accusing Hillary Clinton of shedding
no tears for black victims of Hurricane Katrina long before Bill Clinton
alluded to his famous father—can now be accused of helping Republicans
make their case. But what should she do? Stand silently watching the
disaster unfold? Instead, she might try pointing out that it was
working-class Democrats Obama insulted. Also, that far from falling
during the Clinton administration, employment in Pennsylvania rose by
more than 500,000 jobs between 1993 and 2000 while unemployment dropped
from 7.3 to 4.1 percent. That’s the perfectly rational reason that many
cling to her candidacy.
—–––––•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.