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A make-or-break moment for Obama

Tuesday in Philadelphia, Barack Obama faces his highest bar yet: He has to explain his relationship with – and differences with – his controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.
Image: Barack Obama, Jeremiah Wright
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., left, shown here with his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, March 10, 2005.AP
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Wherever you initially think the bar was set for Sen. Barack Obama, it’s now being raised, and raised. Tuesday in Philadelphia, he faces the highest hurdle yet: He has to explain his relationship with — and differences with — his controversial pastor and spiritual mentor of two decades, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.

It could be a make-or-break moment.

By now you probably know who Wright is: the brilliant, learned, eloquent, charming but also often angry and sometimes virulently anti-white (and now retired) pastor at the Southside Chicago United Church of Christ. A disciple of what came to be known as “black liberation” theology, Wright mixed social and moral uplift with nasty (even if often justified) stabs at the white power structure that has dominated American life.

The most vivid and antagonistic (and nakedly race-based) of Wright’s “strong preaching” always has been a potential liability to a national candidate such as Obama, especially one running on a “bring us all together” theme of harmony. The senator acknowledged as much a year ago when, at the last minute, he canceled Wright’s planned invocation at his presidential campaign launch in Springfield, Ill.

There the matter rested until conservative talk radio and blogs got some traction with the story by broadcasting some of Wright’s sound bites, which are all to reminiscent, when taken on their own, of everyone from the pre-hajj Malcolm X to post-calypso Louis Farrakhan.

But Obama’s problem is not so much what Wright believes or says. I know respected theologians in Chicago and elsewhere who admire his erudition and fire, and who say that he is a complex, good-hearted soul who has done much good for his flock.

No, the fast-developing problem is how Obama has handled the matter.

He and his top aides have started to give excuses and split hairs with the enthusiasm (if not quite the surgical skill) of a Bill or Hillary Clinton. And for Obama it is not a good thing to start to sound like either.

The fact is Wright is the man who brought Obama to Christ. He is the one who married him and Michelle Robinson. He is the one who baptized their children. He is the one who helped supply a sense of community rootedness and black identity that Obama, by his own account, says he so yearned for as the credentialed but confused son of a racially mixed marriage.

So what do Obama and his surrogates say?

  • David Axelrod, Obama’s media adviser and close friend, said with what I assume was a straight face (it was a conference call) that a main reason why Wright did not give the invocation in Springfield was that the temperature outside was too cold.
  • Obama very carefully says that he never heard any of Wright’s incendiary preachments while he, Obama, was “in the pews” in the church.
  • Obama says he never heard them “directly” from Wright in “private conversations.”
  • Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, one of Obama’s closest political allies, said many of Wright’s most inflammatory remarks were made BEFORE Obama joined the church.
  • The new pastor of the church (the Obamas still belong to it) in essence is threatening to brand as racist anyone who questions the statements and record of the Rev. Wright.
  • Obama has said that he repudiates all of the nasty Wright statements that are circulating as audio and video files on the net (including the “God Damn America” and “U.S. of KKK A” ones) and that he “probably” would have walked out of the church and had words with Wright if he had heard them in the pews.
  • At other times, Obama has dropped the “probably.”

Now I’m told that Durbin was winging it, and the campaign did not mean to defend Obama by claiming that Wright’s controversial remarks were more than 20 years old.

This kind of thing cannot go on, which is why Obama and his brain trust wisely decided that he would have to give a speech to put the entire thing into a new and wider context.

In Philadelphia, at the National Constitution Center, he will allude to the nation’s constitutional history, and to the progress we have made in race relations and civil rights.

He will describe Wright’s preaching as a way station to a more colorblind America, a way station that he, Obama, is seeking to leave as he reaches for higher ground for all America.

But Obama can’t — and should not — try to deny that the church and the Rev. Wright are the essence of who he is. Obama has said as much, in memorable prose, in his two books. And there is no need to jettison him entirely.

In a way, Obama not only has all of America in him, as he said the other day, he has lived all over our racial history in his one life — from an African (not African American) father, to a run for the presidency with the most superb of (formerly all-white) institutional credentials.

He can say: I am growing as I live, and so are we as a country. Wright helped me find my identity and soul as a man, and that is a process that any American can identify with in his or her own way.

Obama can turn the moment into a triumph — if he tells the story with pride and candor.