Bob Herbert’s column today happens to be one of the best and most succinct summaries of Obama’s current woes and the character flaws that underlie them. And when a liberal anti-Iraq War (“How long do we want this madness to last?”) black man such as Herbert turns on Barack Obama, it means something.
Herbert’s got Wright’s number, all right (and note: another “Julius Caesar” reference in the first line of Hebert’s column). He sees him as a narcissistic blowhard, reveling in his fifteen minutes (or more, unfortunately) of fame and in the process getting back at Obama, who is insufficiently worshipful—of Wright. But Herbert understands that Wright isn’t really the main point.
What is? This:
…[T]he apparent helplessness of the Obama campaign in the face of the Wright onslaught contributes to the growing perception of the candidate as weak, as someone who is unwilling or unable to fight aggressively on his own behalf…Mr. Obama seems more and more like someone buffeted by events, rather than in charge of them.
A month ago, shortly after the Wright controversy erupted, I wrote that the main issue in this campaign wasn’t shaping up to be about change, but about that old-fashioned thing known as “guts.” Whatever you think of Hillary and McCain, they’ve got ’em and its becoming clearer and clearer that Obama doesn’t.
Oh, he has bravado, and arrogance. But that’s not the same. He’s had many defining moments, but Wright continues to be the most visible one in which he doesn’t show the character traits necessary in a President. His soft rejection of Wright needs to harden into condemnation and an unequivocal and total break. And even then, it may be a case of too little, too late.
Whether Obama’s refusal to “disown” Wright comes from loyalty, the need for a father figure, or a cold-blooded assessment of the fact that by disowning Wright he would risk the loss of a huge percentage of the African-American vote, Obama faces an unenviable dilemma.
This sort of dilemma is not uncommon for political figures, however. In fact, it’s so common it’s been given a name: a Sister Souljah moment. The ever-helpful Wikipedia comes up with the following definition, which I think you’ll agree fits the bill rather perfectly in the Obama case:
…[A] politician’s public repudiation of an allegedly extremist person or group, statement, or position perceived to have some association with the politician or their party. Such an act of repudiation is designed to signal to centrist voters that the politician is not beholden to traditional, and sometimes unpopular, interest groups associated with the party, although such a repudiation runs the risk of alienating some of the politician’s allies and the party’s base voters.
Such moments are the stuff of which appeals to the great middle of the US are made. But they are also revealers of both character and judgment, which is even more important in evaluating a potential President. That’s why Hillary is pounding so mightily on the theme of Obama’s lack of courage, although she’s not discussing the Wright incident itself–a sort of third rail for her, as well. Instead she’s challenging Obama by making him an offer that’s the verbal equivalent of mano-a-mano combat, and which she knows he’ll refuse, a Lincoln-Douglas type debate.
Obama had no trouble throwing his grandmother under the bus, and Wright has no trouble doing the same to him. But Obama’s hesitance to do so to Wright has reminded me of another footnote to history, the short and unhappy 1972 Vice-Presidential run of Senator Thomas Eagleton.
Eagleton was a telegenic but relatively unknown senator when he was tapped by Democratic nominee George McGovern for the number two spot on the ticket. Nixon was widely perceived as headed for a second term, and most of the more prominent Democrats were reluctant to accept the spot on a team that would probably lose.
Eagleton was chosen quickly and not properly vetted, and failed to disclose what was then a shocking fact but now seems extraordinarily ho-hum: that he’d suffered from depression years earlier, and in those pre-Prozac days had been given a couple a electroshock treatments.
The hue and cry that resulted from this revelation was enormous, and McGovern was under pressure to ditch Eagleton. This isn’t exactly a Sister Souljah moment, since it didn’t involve denouncing the politics of an extremist, but it was a moment of truth nonetheless that involved courage and loyalty.
The dilemma: should he stick by Eagleton, who was turning out to be a potential liability? Or should he toss him to the curb, which would demonstrate disloyalty?
McGovern revealed his character by resolving the conflict in the worst possible way: vacillation. First he demonstrated loyalty with the hyperbolic statement that he stood by Eagleton “1000 per cent.” And then a couple of days later he dumped him from the ticket.
Nixon went on to win the election in one of the largest landslides in history. McGovern had always been a weak candidate in terms of his prospects of becoming President, but the Eagleton affair highlighted a different sort of weakness that could only have contributed to his loss.
Eagleton was no Wright; he “resigned” for the good of the party and continued to serve in the Senate. But the die was cast for McGovern.
The flavor of the incident can best be captured by a remark McGovern made shortly before Eagleton’s forced “resignation:” “I’m with Senator Eagleton all the way—until he and I have a chance to talk.”
Time called it “a curious way to do business” that “raised some serious questions about both men and their way of doing things.”
And the same is true of Obama. If he makes a more forceful statement against Wright now, he not only seems disloyal— considering Obama stated in his speech that he could not disown him—but he seems to be contradicting himslef. If he does not, he seems foolishly loyal, weak, and perhaps even in agreement with Wright’s incendiary statements.
And either course opens him up to charges of political expediency. Wright—who is no dummy—has cleverly covered Obama’s first option by defining any disassociation by Obama from Wright as merely the poll-driven act of a typical pol. And if Obama Stands By His Man at and refuses to condemn Wright in more forceful terms now, he’s seen as a coward who as shying away from a Sister Souljah moment for fear of alienating his African-American base.
Obama demonstrates lack of intestinal fortitude. But I’m also wondering how badly he wants this thing at this point. He seems to have lost his mojo and his duende, and to just not be having much fun anymore. A President has to have many odd character traits, and one of them is a liking for the blood sport that is politics. Another is endurance, both physical and mental and emotional.
These things aren’t quite the same as courage. But all are necessary—although not sufficient—for anyone who would take on the awesome task of becoming President.
The seemingly neverending campaign is designed to reveal whether a candidate has these qualities, and we’re finding out that Obama lacks them. I wonder whether he’s discovering the same thing.
[NOTE: I didn’t see these remarks of Obama’s before I wrote this post. They definitely represent a much more forceful repudiation of Wright, which was necessary and is laudable. And they seem to be sincere; my guess is that Obama was indeed shocked by Wright’s performance. But as I wrote in the above post, it may be a case of “too little, too late.” The Wright episode shows an extraordinary series of poor judgments by Obama. And Wright’s performance at the National Press Club did not contradict his sermons from the last few years, they repeated them.]