They've each spent decades with one of the Democrats running for president, building intimate bonds that only the closest families share. They've helped mold the candidates' political and spiritual beliefs and shape what kind of president each promises to be. But now, with one of those Democrats poised for defeat, either Jeremiah Wright or Bill Clinton will draw a strong lash of blame for hastening the demise of his longtime ally.
Eventually, I'm told by reliable sources, someone will prevail in this never-ending primary campaign. And someone will lose, prompting political obituaries and finger-pointing aimed squarely at the character flaws and wrong decisions of the felled. It may be one of this historic campaign's greatest ironies that the pastor and the former president will rank high atop the list of problems that confronted Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary campaign's closing weeks. It's less surprising, perhaps, that the injurious debate that entangled both campaigns will have been about race.
Following a shocking clash with the man who performed his wedding, Obama this week sought a divorce. He repudiated Wright, saying his preening dismissal of Obama as a posturing pol was "a show of disrespect to me" and "an insult to what we've been trying to do in this campaign." Visibly shaken, he said Wright is "not the person that I met 20 years ago" and that "whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed as a consequence of this."
To appreciate how difficult it was for Obama to say those words, remember what he'd said just six weeks ago in Philadelphia about Wright: "I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother." Just one day before he rejected Wright, he had casually dismissed critics as comparable to those who mock his middle name (Hussein), or complain when he doesn't hold his hand on his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. And yet Obama ultimately saw the distinction, rejecting the man whose sermon "The Audacity to Hope" inspired the title of his second book, because he recognized the toxicity Wright threatened to bring to his campaign and the country.
While critics complained it took Obama too long to condemn Wright, they fail to appreciate the central role Wright played in Obama's life. He was a spiritual leader for a man seeking spirituality. He was a father figure for a man whose parents died young. Obama's move this week was the most difficult and pivotal personal decision he's made since he launched his presidential campaign -- and it may have revived his prospects.
The situation is even more complicated for Hillary Clinton, whose campaign's main struggle has been managing a former president who, while once viewed as the nation's most gifted politician, has apparently lost many of those skills since leaving office. If Hillary doesn't prevail in this campaign, a key turning point will have been South Carolina, specifically the way her husband campaigned against Obama there, both before the primary and on Election Day, when he compared Obama's huge win to ones Jesse Jackson scored in the 1980s. While she may condone those racially divisive tactics, she has never felt comfortable practicing them herself and, when pressed, publicly distanced herself from both them and, yes, her own husband. It was his idea, we were led to believe, not hers.
That became all the more clear last week, when Bill Clinton, given the slightest nudge by a radio reporter in Philadelphia, revisited the South Carolina episode. "No," he said, as defiant and combative as ever, when asked if he'd played the race card in South Carolina. "I think that they played the race card on me. And we now know, from memos from the campaign and everything, that they planned to do it along."
The former president then added, for good measure, "I don't think I can take any [expletive] from anybody on that, do you?"
Maybe you can't, Mr. President. But your wife most certainly can.
Hillary Clinton can never go as far as Obama in repudiating her longtime confidant. And that, more than anything, could be the downfall of her campaign.