"I gave them a sword."
Richard M. Nixon
The first election in which I was age eligible to vote was the Nixon-McGovern contest of 1972, and I'll own up to being a McGovernite. Nixon, after saying he had a "secret plan to end the (Vietnam) war" in 1968, instead added 20,000 more American fatalities, carpet bombed the North, and invaded Cambodia in his first term. George McGovern seemed the serious and sober anti-war candidate, capable of inspiring young people back into the fold after the death of Bobby Kennedy, and bringing the war to a quick conclusion. After the excitement of the Democratic convention, compared to the Nixonian, obnoxious, "Four More Years!" balloon drop spectacular, the polls gave McGovern a decent chance to win the election. I recall the morning I picked up the newspaper and saw the headline, "Eagleton Admits Shock Treatments," and I knew it was over. Although Sargent Shriver was hustled in to try to add some Camelot pixie dust as a second Vice Presidential choice, the damage was done. In George McGovern's first major decision as his party's nominee, he had chosen Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri as his running mate before discovering that Eagleton had undergone electric shock therapy, and that error in judgement proved politically fatal. After seeing the televised portions of the sermons of Reverend Jeremiah Wright last night, I had that same heart-sinking feeling about the campaign of Barack Obama.
I've heard more than my share of black preaching for a white boy, because I like it. I've heard preachers reach peaks of hysteria where you're sure their next stop must be the emergency room. But Rev. Wright's expurgated sermons are so inflammatory, they include something to offend nearly everyone, and regardless of Obama's denunciation of the words but not the man, he should have distanced himself from his pastor long ago. This reflects poorly on his judgement. Did Obama not see this coming? It wasn't as if these sermons were surreptitiously taped and leaked to the media. They were for sale to the general public, and the Rev's words "God damn America," regardless of the context, will be ringing in voter's ears right up until the election. I am an unabashed liberal, but I'm also a realist who has lived his entire life in the South, and I believe the words of Rev. Wright have just blown up the Barack Obama campaign.
Obama was quick to appear with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC and Anderson Cooper on CNN to denounce his pastor's incendiary remarks, but his reference to Wright as "an old Uncle who sometimes will say things that I don't agree with," stumbles on two fronts. For whites who are blind to the anger in the black community that Rev. Wright expresses, but who are considering a first time vote for a black candidate, Obama's remarks at this date may seem too little, too late. For black voters, the word "uncle" has negative connotations of its own. As in the case of George McGovern, this goes to the heart of the issue about Obama to undecided voters, his judgement. He can distance himself from Rev. Wright to the earth's end, but he has given his political enemies enough ammunition to torpedo his chances. I can see Fox News, or any swift-boat type ad now: regardless of what Obama says, they will show his minister saying, "Goddamn America," along with the photo of Obama embracing him. Some will argue that John McCain has accepted the endorsements of John Hagee and Pat Robertson, but it's one thing to accept the backing of a controversial preacher and another to be his congregant.
And it's not as if Rev. Wright was unaware of the impact of his words. His post 9/11 sermon about "Chickens coming home to roost," triggered a memory of the exact same expression being used by Malcolm X following the assassination of John Kennedy. He was referring to the CIA attempts to kill Castro, but his words were interpreted by the public as showing Malcolm X as unsympathetic to the Kennedy family and a nation in mourning, and won him the enmity of all. Rev. Wright did not choose those words carelessly in reference to 9/11. His opinions regarding this country's conduct in past wars are validly debatable, but most folks will hear his comments as meaning, "We had it coming," and that's the one statement that 3,000 innocent lives refute in the public mind. In light of the uplifting campaign Obama has run so far, this is worse than blood in the water. This is like throwing giant buckets of chum to the circling sharks.
These pronouncements, along with the Rev's conjecture that "We started the AIDS virus...We are only able to maintain our level of living by making sure that Third World people live in grinding poverty," are going to make white Christians lose their minds. The whiplash over this is still simmering, lost momentarily in the basketball playoffs, but come next week, and the week after, Obama will be able to speak of nothing else, and engage in nothing other than damage control for a damage that may be beyond controlling. Hillary won't have to do a thing but sympathize because Fox News, Hannity, Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Coulter, and O'Reilly will do all the necessary butchering for her. I watched Obama at a rally in Plainfield, Indiana today, and though he was relaxed and seemed non-plussed, and the crowds stood and cheered as always, there was something amiss in the room, as if the electricity had been displaced by anxiety. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I think Obama needs divine intervention to recover from this. And I wouldn't be asking Rev. Jeremiah Wright to perform the intercession.