The internets have been ablaze today with talk about Barack Obama's pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Without belaboring the Reverend's already much discussed rhetoric, I'll mention his greatest hits for any readers who may be new to the conversation. "Hillary Ain't Never Been Called a N***er" had a piquant urgency. "Not â€˜God Bless America' - God Damn America!" had a good beat that you could burn the flag to.
Let's stipulate that Obama will denounce his pastor and distance himself more authoritatively from Wright in the coming days than he has done to date. The videos of Wright's rants are becoming famous, and they're deeply disquieting.
Why does this matter? Should Obama be responsible for his pastor's musings? On the one hand, I would hate to be responsible for all of my rabbi's zany antics. Then again, I'm not running for president.
Although it will drive Obama supporters crazy, Reverend Wright is extremely relevant to the presidential campaign. One can debate whether or not he should be relevant, but it's a simple fact that he is relevant.
Barack Obama is still in many ways an obscure figure. Until three-and-a-half years ago, no one outside the Illinois state legislature had ever heard of him. Today, Obama is the most likely 44th President of the United States. The last several months we've had an intense getting-to-know-you process as the country tries to familiarize itself with this relative stranger who seeks to be its leader. Assuming Obama wins the nomination, that process will only intensify between now and November.
There's a reason why no one in the modern era has leapt from obscurity to the presidency since Jimmy Carter. In the age of instant communications, people can learn a lot about their politicians, and they want to know a lot about serious presidential contenders. When a politician enters the arena as a relatively clean slate, all sorts of stuff will come to define him.
That's one advantage Hillary Clinton still has in the Democratic race. If Obama's a clean slate, Hillary's a hideously filthy slate. There's nothing we don't know about her. We know about her crooked land deals and her uncanny facility with commodities trading and all kinds of stuff about her personal life. For better and for worse, Hillary Clinton entered this race as thoroughly defined figure. We weren't going to learn anything new about her that hadn't been in the public domain for quite some time. (Actually, some people have been surprised at how savagely, amorally and incompetently Hillary has run her campaign. Obviously those people hadn't been paying close attention to her body of work the past seventeen years.)
John McCain also benefits from being a known quantity. The left will likely scream bloody murder that McCain could accept the endorsement of a disturbing guy like John Hagee without much hue and cry while Obama's pastor stands on the cusp of mega-celebrity. But John McCain has been a public figure for over a generation and at the forefront of our national politics for a decade. McCain has a record, and the country knows him. In figuring out John McCain, there's no need to scrutinize his relationships.
Ultimately what the "Obama's Pastor" issue comes down to is the country asking, "Who is Barack Obama?" and finding answers anywhere it can. Because Obama has no real public record of his own, the country has to sift through tea leaves. The associations he chooses become relevant.
And a pattern is developing regarding those associations that's disturbing. When Michelle Obama made her obnoxious comments a short while ago, I wasn't enormously enamored with making a big fuss about them. Her comments were the kind of shopworn, low-grade anti-American sentiments that typified liberal Ivy League grads of her generation. They sounded like a knee-jerk reflex more than the product of a real and careful analysis. Such is the nature and rhetoric of limousine-liberal groupthink.
But you combine Reverend Wright's rhetoric with Michelle Obama's and a pattern begins to emerge: Obama's inner circle seems composed of an inordinate amount of people who don't much care for this country. Some Obama supporters may ask in response to that fact, So what? Does Obama necessarily share the views of his pastor and his wife? And what if he does?
If that's going to be Obama's supporters best defense, it's not a very good one. The views of Obama's close relations are going to disquiet a lot of people. A lot of voting people.