10.13.08

Bring Back Rev. Wright

Why won't the McCain campaign attack Obama for an association more damaging than Bill Ayers – the one with Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright?

Why won't the McCain campaign attack Obama for an association more damaging than Bill Ayers—the one with Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright?

The McCain campaign's attempt to tie Barack Obama to terrorist-turned-professor Bill Ayers appears to have failed. Most people still don't seem to know who Ayers is. And there still isn't evidence that the two were more than acquaintances. By the end of the week, McCain will likely have moved on to another line of attack. The obvious question is: Why not Jeremiah Wright?

Unlike Ayers, the Rev. Wright indisputably was one of Obama's closest friends. Obama himself has said so. Nobody in America needs to be reminded of who Wright is. As long as you've decided to go after Obama's character and associations, Wright seems like the obvious place to start. The 30-second attack ad essentially writes itself.

So Jeremiah Wright probably won't figure directly in this campaign. But at some point, it would be nice to hear Obama explain his relationship with Wright.

The spot opens with the familiar yet still shocking tape of Wright pounding the pulpit and looking crazy:

Wright: “God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

Narrator: This is the man Barack Obama has called his spiritual mentor. In 2006, Obama gave Wright’s church more than $22,000 as a gift. Here's what Obama's mentor had to say about our country in the days after 9/11.

Wright: "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye…America's chickens are coming home to roost."

Narrator: For 20 years Barack Obama sat in the pews, even brought his family, as Wright preached hate. Obama never said a word, until he was caught. Then he defended Wright. Barack Obama: Divisive. Dishonest. Dangerous.

An alternate version might contain footage of Wright accusing the U.S. government of manufacturing AIDS in order to kill black people, or of spreading drugs in the ghetto, or it might show Wright dismissing murdered Alabama teen Natalie Halloway as a drunken slut. There's a lot of footage to choose from and it's all on YouTube. A seasoned media consultant could have that ad ready in a couple of hours. It'd be the most famous spot of this political year, and probably the most powerful.

So why not? The press would go crazy, but so what? They're rooting for Obama anyway. It's racist to bring up Jeremiah Wright? No, Jeremiah Wright is the racist. He's on tape confirming it. Truth is a defense, and the claims in that ad are true.

The campaign won't do it. This spring, McCain said he wouldn't use Wright as a campaign issue, and so far he's stuck to that pledge. While Sarah Palin did go briefly off message and mentioned Wright in an interview, the campaign hasn't run a single ad featuring Wright, and neither have the RNC or pro-McCain 527s. Late last week, senior McCain advisors broached the topic with their candidate, but McCain wouldn't budge.

So Jeremiah Wright probably won't figure directly in this campaign. But at some point, it would be nice to hear Obama explain his relationship with Wright. Obama already did that, you say? Laid the matter to rest in that lovely March 18th speech on race relations that made you think of Bobby Kennedy and MLK? Go back and read that speech carefully. Once you subtract Obama's eloquence, it doesn't sound so groundbreaking. It sounds like something Jesse Jackson could have delivered.

The thesis of the speech, the entire point of delivering it, comes toward the end, as Obama explains why he will not disavow a man who has just been revealed as a race-baiter. The reason? Because America has a long history of white racism. “This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up,” Obama said. ‘They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted.”

In other words, people of a certain color were once cruel to Wright, therefore we ought to understand why he lashes out against an entire race. It's the Bernard Goetz defense.

And anyway, Obama went on, this is the sort of thing that all black preachers say on Sunday morning. You didn't know that? Then maybe you're a racist, too. Or as Obama put it: “The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning.”

If you remember Marion Barry's pre-sentencing press conference, you'll recognize the argument: Yes, I made some mistakes. But the real problem here is white racism, your racism. You're the one who's actually responsible for this. So shut up and stop asking questions.

Over the weekend, John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and Obama supporter, made a species of that case against McCain. ‘‘As one who was the victim of violence and hate during the height of the Civil Rights Movement,’’ Lewis said, ‘‘I am deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the McCain-Palin campaign.’’ The written statement went on compare McCain to George Wallace, whom, Lewis pointed out, ‘‘never fired a gun’’ but ‘‘created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed...’’

So for questioning Obama’s relationship with Billy Ayers, McCain is, according to an official Civil Rights Hero, morally comparable to George Wallace and the Alabama church bombers. Frank Rich went even further in the New York Times, accusing McCain not simply of racism, but of endangering Obama's life. ‘‘The McCain campaign has crossed the line between tough negative campaigning and inciting vigilantism,’’ Rich wrote in a column so hysterical it deserves a diagnosis.

If the argument seems depressingly familiar, it should. The Obama campaign used the same cudgel against Hillary Clinton in the primaries, even as Obama himself did his best to downplay the subject of race in public. But on background, and through surrogates, team Obama attacked the Clintons as bigots. They knew what we all know, that the quickest way to silence guilty white Americans is to accuse them of racism. It works.

But not for presidents. If he's elected, Obama will have to find a new dodge. Invoking George Wallace might scare a political opponent. It won't get you far with the Chinese.