Twenty years ago I watched in amazement as a Southern audience gave Jesse Jackson a stomping, hooting standing ovation during his 1988 Presidential campaign. What was notable was that the entire hall was filled with down-at-the heels coalminers–and each and every one was white. Hitting hard at Reagonomics, which had double-punched working class men and women of all colors, Jackson’s rhetoric won over at least one adverse pocket of American culture. Of course, “lifting all boats from the bottom” was not enough for Jackson’s candidacy back then.
It remains to be seen if Barack Obama’s stirring speech of inclusion and unity, a speech that surprised most in the media by frankly addressing America’s heartbreaking past and present realities of racism, both white and black, can touch enough of Pennsylvania’s white male (and female) voters. He sorely needs them. His upcoming economic speech may also help.
But in this video era his eloquence may be no match for the Endless Replay. Obama haters stand ready to forever peddle the Rev Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary anti-white speech. Without checking facts, the New York Times ran William Kristol’s column which falsely placed Obama in the pew listening to Wright on that particular Sunday. This made Obama sound like a liar when he said he was not present that day. Kristol later “regretted the error” but the column remains in the blogosphere.
Any one listening to today’s entire Obama speech would have to admit that he succeeded in making all that has come before now look like the pettiest of politics: Is he a Muslim? With a middle name like Hussein what do you think? (Hillary: “Not as far as I know”). He wouldn’t be where he is if he wasn’t black (Geraldine Ferraro). The last comment certainly made many African Americans think that, shoot, they had somehow overlooked a 200-plus history of benefits.
At the risk of not turning-the-other-cheek, what has happened to a full-scale critique of McCain and the stained-glass voice lobbing incendiary bombshells on his behalf? There is a video out there of McCain, smiling and professing his “pride” in his endorsement from pastor John Hagee. McCain’s pulpit pal Hagee blamed Hurricane Katrina on sinning homosexuals in New Orleans (“God controls the heavens.”) He pushes an invasion of Iran to facilitate the Rapture of heaven-bound Christians. Recanting earlier views, the reverend says those saved may now include some Jews, since Hagee sees Israel as a force for defeating Islam. (“The coming nuclear showdown with Iran is a certainty…For Israel to wait is to risk committing national suicide.”) Hagee has called Catholicism the “great whore” religion and the “anti-Christ.” Feminists are rebels “against God’s pattern for the family” says Hagee and adds that the “difference between a terrorist and a woman with PMS” is that “you can negotiate with a terrorist.” If that doesn’t make you guffaw, try this: “do you know the difference between a woman with PMS and a snarling Doberman pinscher? The answer is lipstick.” McCain says he doesn’t support every Hagee view, but no McCain recanting has been observed. McCain has also flip-flopped in favor of Jerry Falwell, who blamed 9/11 on Gotham’s gay sinners. This seems lost to the media right now. One answer I got from some major talking heads is that it was different. McCain wasn’t a 20-year friend of the Rev. Hagee. This reasoning ignores the political fact that McCain remains thrilled at an endorsement he will not repute because Hagee is the Falwell and Robertson successor to the large far-right so called Christian base.
Which rants seem the scarier to voters and most damaging to the candidates? Is a reverend who attacks Catholics, gays, women, Arabs and anyone who doesn’t want to blow up Iran a fine fellow for a presidential candidate to embrace? Apparently. For now the news is all Obama/Wright. McCain, praised by pundits and reporters as likeable—and termed “a friend” by some of the most access-oriented—receives only fugitive afterthoughts when the religious issue comes up. (As far as I know, while blogs have addressed this, only Bill Moyer’s Journal on PBS has fully examined Hagee in recent weeks.) McCain’s staff felt confident that there would be no journalistic McCain/Hagee backlash last week when they peddled a Wall Street Journal article to reporters in which Wright was quoted as saying “Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run” and accusing the country of importing drugs, exporting guns and training murderers. If stripped of Wright’s rhetorical flame-throwing, this is an indisputable part of history: U.S. customs on the take when drugs reach our shores, the White House selling guns to the Contras and various other countries, CIA training assassins against enemy leaders—all have been well documented. But to many whites and some African-Americans, Wright’s screaming exhortations on that forever tape are far too intolerant to be tolerated. While Obama cannot totally reject the popular Reverend Wright and his large African-American base, he has had to distance himself far more than McCain has had to do from the religious right ranters.
Obama made the case that racist anger on both sides runs deep in the privacy of some homes, churches and social gatherings.
Whether enough voters will reflect on this reality and recognize the need to go forward together and instead examine candidates on the issues of war and the economy is the question of the hour. And let’s see if McCain continues to remain undamaged by the words of his own pastor of intolerance.