As the endless Democratic campaign is sailing swiftly toward crucial contests in Indiana and North Carolina on Tuesday, May 6, the seas are high and the horizon keeps bobbing up and down. It is hard for anyone to see where we are. Ten days ago those doing the cold analysis of the numbers were writing that, mathematically, Senator Obama cannot lose. But then Obama’s clever, self-promoting pastor from Chicago, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, took to national television for three successive appearances, and almost derailed the Senator’s campaign.
Cunningly and mischievously, Reverend Wright went on and on about his peculiar racist theories. He opined that whites and blacks by nature think with different parts of their brain, and learn in different ways, so that whites tend to excel in book knowledge, logic, and measured, reasoned music, whereas blacks tend toward subjective interactions, more passionate musical beats, unique rhythmic clapping, and on and on. The Reverend seemed to insist that black brains are constructed differently – but this is the kind of crackpot thinking that once led to separate, segregated schools, as well as to deep feelings of racial inferiority. His rant was horrible stuff.
Worse, Reverend Wright accused the American government of deliberately inventing AIDS to subdue the black population, of encouraging drug traffic to destroy inner-city blacks, and of practicing worldwide terrorism equivalent to that of Al Qaeda. He blamed America for September 11, 2001. His words have outraged a large proportion of Americans, and forced many on the left to disassociate themselves from his absurd claims.
Yet worse again, this intensely self-satisfied Reverend announced in front of cameras that Obama was now acting only from political motives in separating himself from his Pastor, leader, and friend of these past twenty years. Pastors tell the truth, politicians must dissemble.
This charge cut Obama to the quick, for it destroyed in minutes thecampaign image that Obama had been cultivating all through these long, hard months: that the young Senator is a man “above politics,” who “tells the truth” and transcends “the old, outmoded methods of politics.” Indeed, these claims are the Obama campaign. His campaign has been (and is) all about him and his superior being, which by the very accidents of his life transcends the “old divisions” between black and white, Republicans and Democrats, government and citizens.
There are virtually no differences of policy between Obama and Senator Clinton. Both are to the left of their party, he only a bit more so (on the Iraq war). There are no known examples of Senator Obama playing a significant bipartisan role in the Senate, “reaching across the aisle” as Washingtonians call it. Obama has been running a campaign based on his personal identity.
So now Senator Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan father who not long after fled from the family, so that Barack (soon called Barry) had to be brought up by his white mother and her family, has for twenty years been nourished, brought to Christ , taught, counseled, and treated as a beloved son by the same Reverend Wright. Suddenly he must reach an anguishing decision. One can easily imagine the intense ripping apart of his soul -- in public, unavoidably so, and everyone looking on.
There was nothing for Barack to do except break from Reverend Wright and his principles openly, on national television, with as much ashen-mouthed passion as he could bring himself to show.
Now, here reporters differ. Some wrote that Obama’s face as he delivered his remarks paled from the loss of blood in his cheeks; and wore the look of a man heart-sick, defeated, deflated. He had known, of course, that this moment was coming; he and Reverend Wright had spoken of it months ago. Now at last Obama did what he had to do – he denounced Reverend Wright and his awful principles, lest he have to give up any hope of winning the presidency. He did not quite succeed in looking manly, for he was too inwardly wounded.
Other reporters – most of those in the national press, it seems – took this ritual of denunciation on its face. They wrote that Obama looked sincere and brave, and that he had done what he had to do, so now the campaign could move on. His wife said she was proud of his courage.
However, none of Obama’s famous friends stepped forward during those five dark days to stand with Obama – not Ted Kennedy, not Oprah the television talk-show hostess, not the Obama supporters among mayors of several large cities. For the last two days Obama stood all alone. Then, after his severing of relations with Pastor Wright, his supporters started coming back. Most of the press cheered for him. But the polls started trailing downwards, some of them fairly sharply so. Hillary moved ahead of Barack by five points in Indiana, and was cutting into his lead in North Carolina.
How could the polls not move? Obama’s sudden public wrestling against Reverend Wright, the great father figure described in his autobiography revealed Obama’s unresolved questions of maturation. It is not believable that a man like Reverend Wright could for twenty long years hide his core principles from his “son.” Something here is not truthful. And that suspicion is draining Obama’s campaign of the meaning he had poured into it.
Obama stands revealed as no white knight, no imperturbable and masterly hero. He is only a man. Besides, from now until the November election, on any given day, Reverend Wright may attack Obama’s credibility again, in response to Obama’s separation from him, and Obama’s denunciation of his core principles. That, too, would be human. Nonetheless, the numbers look as though Obama cannot be stopped.
The Democrats have a habit of falling in love with relatively unknown presidential candidates, whom they briefly idealize. McGovern, Carter, Dukakis, even the obscure Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
Beyond that, most of the Americans who make their living chattering in public – professors of social science and the humanities, journalists, television and Hollywood stars, artists, street activists – favor the Democratic Party, or even movements yet more to the left. Such persons tend to have an idealized, noble picture of their own professions – and themselves. They love leaders who appear to be ideal, heroic, moral figures.
Of the seven national television networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, and FOX – six are governed by the dreams and perceptions of the left. Virtually all the major big-city newspapers, at least on the East and the West Coasts, set the national standards for what should be honored and what ignored. Virtually all of them are in the Obama camp.
The great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr used to refer to Protestant liberals and secular saints as “the children of light,” who imagine themselves to be locked in a struggle against “the children of darkness.” (That is, Republicans, big corporations, and business elites). Niebuhr warned that this abiding tendency to sentimentalize reality, without irony and without tragedy, is for its own part bound to end in irony and tragedy. A kind of remorseless Greek Fate unrolls, irresistibly, before our very eyes, generation after generation.
Whatever the electoral arithmetic and the metaphysical undertow may be, the only real hope of Senator Hillary Clinton is that Senator Obama should stumble so badly that Democratic Party leaders will decide that his cause in November is hopeless. Since neither candidate can win enough votes at this point to qualify as the winner, these “super-delegates” will cast the deciding votes, after all the scheduled elections are completed, early in June. They dread having to deny Obama the election after his strong performance (until now), lest they cause black voters, one of the largest blocs in the Party, to abandon Senator Clinton in anger.
Moreover, one of the most surprising facets of this year’s primaries is how sharply many in the press and the Democratic party have turned against Hillary. Although some even try to pretend that she no longer exists, she keeps fighting and fighting.
Should Senator Clinton should happen to win a decisive victory in Indiana (a state that borders on Senator Obama’s Illinois), and reduce Obama’s large early margin in North Carolina (whose huge black population tilts the Democratic Party in his direction), she will have one more strong argument in favor of her candidacy. And Barack’s campaign will emerge even more battered.
But the opposite may also happen. If Barack defeats Hillary decisively in North Carolina, and also ekes out a win in Indiana, Hillary’s campaign will be severely undercut.
But who knows what ironic turns this race will take on May 6? Both candidates even now look bruised, battered -- and not a little puzzled about what on earth has hit them.
Published in Liberal May 5, 2008