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Obama the Ditherer

Answering the question no one asked.

12:00 AM, Mar 19, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
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A LITTLE OVER a year ago, I read and reviewed Barack Obama's memoir, Dreams From My Father. It was an odd Obama who leapt from those pages. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that Obama slouched from the pages of his own book.

In his autobiography, Obama came across as an extremely passive figure. By Obama's own telling, things just happened to him. Obama's study of his own life didn't bother tracing how he transformed himself from a self-described Hawaiian "pothead" to Harvard Law School student to managing editor of Harvard's Law Review. Obama didn't see fit to give himself any action scenes in his own book.

I found this a little disconcerting. Memoir writing typically isn't a game for the shy or the modest. This holds doubly so when the memoirist is barely out of his 20's as Obama was when he wrote Dreams from My Father. Since Obama wasn't yet a politician when he published the book, I figured the apparent passivity said something about Obama's nature.

After watching Obama's generally maladroit handling of the Jeremiah Wright matter, it's safe to conclude that he is indeed a lot more passive than the typical politician. The clock began ticking on this scandal thirteen months ago when Rolling Stone published an article on the Meshuganeh Minister. Obama resolutely did nothing. He didn't leave the church, nor did he make a statement that would put the matter to bed long before the voting began. He apparently had the audacity to believe that hoping the matter would disappear was tantamount to a plan. The statements he made that attempted to dismiss the affair (like the infamous "crazy uncle" comment) were doomed and in a way pathetic. It says something about Obama that forthrightly dealing with the problem was apparently his least preferred option.

As the scandal intensified over the last couple of weeks, Obama remained resolutely indecisive. Initially, he split hairs about whether he was in the pews for Reverend Wright's greatest hits. Then he lashed out at "voices of division."

After days of dithering, Obama took a belated tour of the cable news networks last Friday. As the talk refused to dispel, Obama finally wound up where he did yesterday--giving a "major address" on the matter. For those looking for indications of what kind of resolution and rapid response the Obama administration might show at a time of crisis, the handling of the Reverend Wright affair provides a teachable moment.

THE QUESTION of the day is how Obama fared with his major address. Many are hailing his call for racial reconciliation. Some analysts, including conservatives like Charles Murray, found it "flat-out brilliant" and thought it captured "a lot of nuance about race in American." For the twin purposes of brevity and avoiding arguing over meaningless topics, I'll stipulate that Obama gave a lovely statement on racial matters.

In doing so, Obama brilliantly answered a question that virtually no one is asking. With the country's attitude floating somewhere between grave concern and panic over the economy, Barack Obama has positioned himself as the candidate of racial reconciliation. With the body politic bitterly divided over the war in Iraq, Barack Obama has adopted racial reconciliation as his signature issue.

While answering a question that no one is asking, Obama dodged the question that everyone is asking, namely how exactly did a healing figure like Obama spend 20 years listening to the hateful ramblings of a man like Jeremiah Wright. In dodging that question, Obama showed an unbecoming slipperiness. At one point, Obama intoned:

It has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn.

On one end of the spectrum, we've heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it's based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we've heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.

Note how the passage above suggests that Jeremiah Wright let loose his incendiary language during the past couple of weeks at the same time that Geraldine Ferraro was engaging in her unpleasant foolishness. Of course, Wright has been "incendiary" for the entire two decades that he and Barack Obama have enjoyed such a close relationship.