Sweet column: Obama speech great, but will it give him political cover?

SHARE Sweet column: Obama speech great, but will it give him political cover?

PHILADELPHIA — Sen. Barack Obama delivered the speech Tuesday that may be the most enduring of his long presidential campaign.

He deplored the nation’s “racial stalemate.” He declined to “disown” the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose inflammatory rhetoric triggered a crisis that may derail Obama’s White House bid, as he again denounced his pastor’s words. He dared people to reject divisive rhetoric, get over blame games, declare race wars over and say “not this time.”

It was a great speech.

And it would have been greater if it were not delivered because Obama was in a jam. But the enduring truths of Obama’s words are important to acknowledge even if they may not provide him with the political cover he desperately needs at this time. His speech, magnificent as it is, offered moral guidance that may influence one’s conscience but not one’s vote.

The setting was apt, in the historic part of this city, near Independence Hall. The audience was handpicked to be a blend of races and religions and different walks of life.

Obama has not really ignored racial issues or the racial divide in the more than the year he has been running for president.

It was more than a year ago — yes, that long — that Obama and rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton were in Selma, Ala., speaking at historic black churches about the bloody civil rights battles dating back now nearly 43 years.

“I must send greetings from Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.,” he said from the pulpit of the Brown AME church, speaking about Wright, the senior pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side. Ironic, because Obama, it turns out, knew from the early days of his presidential campaign that Wright could be a problem for him.

In January, Obama was at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s spiritual home — after Nevada caucuses cracked open racial rifts as the Democratic delegate fight started a nasty trajectory. “Unity,” Obama said, “is the great need of the hour.”

And it still is. Now, the present: Obama was forced to give this defining speech because selections of Wright’s sermons — the poisonous parts — burst out in the open a few days ago, and the videos don’t lie.

Obama is lucky they did not surface earlier. He decided now is not the time to run from Wright, a man he considers family. As charitable as he was toward Wright, he had found no mercy for Geraldine Ferraro, the Clinton supporter and former vice presidential candidiate whose ill-chosen racial references were seized on by Obama’s campaign and whipped up into a frenzy until she was forced to exit Clinton’s campaign, her own legacy ruined.

Obama also raised more doubts. He admitted in his speech that he heard some of Wright’s fiery rhetoric. “Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes.”

Obama said something different on Friday, when he met with the Chicago Sun-Times. “I’ll be honest with you. I wasn’t in church when any of those sermons were issued.” He went on to say, referring to Wright, “I had not heard him make such, what I consider to be objectionable remarks from the pulpit.”

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