Commentary Magazine


Topic: Reverend Jeremiah Wright

Fake Outrage About “Ugly” Obama Smears

As Alana noted earlier today, the Obama campaign went into overdrive to condemn a conservative super PAC for considering running an ad campaign that would concentrate on linking President Obama to his controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Liberal pundits are also doing their best to muster up outrage about the mere possibility that Wright’s name should be uttered in connection with the president. At TIME Magazine, Joe Klein refers to the planned ads as “really, really ugly.” At the New York Times, Andrew Rosenthal, calls it “race baiting.”

Both are right to call it bad politics. It is a foolish waste of resources that could be better used to remind voters of what a lousy president they’ve had for the last four years. Republicans need to cast the election as a referendum on Obama’s job performance. Personal attacks against Romney are going to be part of the president’s re-election effort. Copying that sort of thing is an unforced error on the part of conservatives. But pardon me if I find the faux outrage these writers are trying to gin up about the mention of Wright is utterly unconvincing.

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As Alana noted earlier today, the Obama campaign went into overdrive to condemn a conservative super PAC for considering running an ad campaign that would concentrate on linking President Obama to his controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Liberal pundits are also doing their best to muster up outrage about the mere possibility that Wright’s name should be uttered in connection with the president. At TIME Magazine, Joe Klein refers to the planned ads as “really, really ugly.” At the New York Times, Andrew Rosenthal, calls it “race baiting.”

Both are right to call it bad politics. It is a foolish waste of resources that could be better used to remind voters of what a lousy president they’ve had for the last four years. Republicans need to cast the election as a referendum on Obama’s job performance. Personal attacks against Romney are going to be part of the president’s re-election effort. Copying that sort of thing is an unforced error on the part of conservatives. But pardon me if I find the faux outrage these writers are trying to gin up about the mention of Wright is utterly unconvincing.

Klein has a point when he says the president’s behavior in office shows us he’s not a particularly religious man or much of a churchgoer, so it can be credibly argued that Wright wasn’t much of an influence on him. But although some on the fringes may have seen the Wright connection as an indication that Obama hated America as much as his pastor or a genuine radical, the point about his ties to the reverend was much simpler and far more telling.

Anyone who voluntarily affiliates with an institution for 20 years that was primarily a vehicle for a person like Wright is making a statement about his view of the world. It’s the sort of association that would and should embarrass any politician, and the effort made by Obama’s defenders to treat the mention of Wright as out of bounds or untouchable because of race is utterly disingenuous. Were any conservative politician to be a longtime member of a church that employed a leader who said as many ugly things as Wright did, they would be crucified for it.

The fact is, Americans knew about this and the majority voted for Obama anyway for a variety of reasons. Bringing it up again is dumb, but the effort to brand it as a form of hate speech is risible.

One more point: Rosenthal makes a point of mentioning that the memo about the ad campaign speaks of defeating “Barack Hussein Obama.”

Note the use of the president’s middle name. Nudge, nudge. Think of Saddam Hussein. Nudge, nudge. He must be a Muslim.

Barack Hussein Obama is clearly not a member of a mosque and is, as the Wright episode teaches us, an affiliated Christian. But while saying his name in this manner was treated as offensive during the 2008 campaign  — and one that John McCain specifically rejected — apparently Rosenthal must have nodded off during the presidential inauguration ceremony in January 2009. The moment the president took the oath as “Barack Hussein Obama,” saying his full name ceased to be a political slur.

Where Klein and Rosenthal both are also wrong is their belief this has any political leverage for either side. Talking about Wright won’t convince anyone to defeat the president now. But the assumption that the Democrats’ lethargic base will be fired up by this also doesn’t hold water. Americans voted for Obama in 2008 in spite of his questionable connections, not because of them.

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Santorum’s Jeremiah Wright Moment?

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism released a video yesterday criticizing Rick Santorum for sitting and listening and then later applauding a sermon by Reverend Dennis Terry at the Greenwell Springs Baptist Church in Louisiana. The video shows Terry encouraging those who do not believe that America is a “Christian nation” — specifically Buddhists and Muslims — to “get out” of America. The RAC’s leader, Rabbi David Saperstein, took Santorum to task for going up to Terry after this tirade to get the pastor’s blessings. While acknowledging that Santorum later distanced himself from Terry’s views, Saperstein said the Republican presidential candidate had a special responsibility as someone who has given issues of faith a prominent role in his campaign to address “hateful” or “bigoted” speech.

Saperstein is right about that. Candidates who sit and listen to hate speech by their supporters, especially when it is spouted from religious pulpits, have a duty to draw a bright line between such views and the political mainstream. In that respect, Santorum appears to have failed. He was clearly more interested in getting the endorsement of Terry and the backing of other evangelicals in the Louisiana Primary than in doing the right thing during his visit to Greenwell Springs. But while I think the pointed questions that Saperstein posed to Santorum are very much on target, if the subject of politicians sitting and listening to hateful sermons seems vaguely familiar, maybe we should flash back to 2008 when a longtime member of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s congregation was running for president.

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism released a video yesterday criticizing Rick Santorum for sitting and listening and then later applauding a sermon by Reverend Dennis Terry at the Greenwell Springs Baptist Church in Louisiana. The video shows Terry encouraging those who do not believe that America is a “Christian nation” — specifically Buddhists and Muslims — to “get out” of America. The RAC’s leader, Rabbi David Saperstein, took Santorum to task for going up to Terry after this tirade to get the pastor’s blessings. While acknowledging that Santorum later distanced himself from Terry’s views, Saperstein said the Republican presidential candidate had a special responsibility as someone who has given issues of faith a prominent role in his campaign to address “hateful” or “bigoted” speech.

Saperstein is right about that. Candidates who sit and listen to hate speech by their supporters, especially when it is spouted from religious pulpits, have a duty to draw a bright line between such views and the political mainstream. In that respect, Santorum appears to have failed. He was clearly more interested in getting the endorsement of Terry and the backing of other evangelicals in the Louisiana Primary than in doing the right thing during his visit to Greenwell Springs. But while I think the pointed questions that Saperstein posed to Santorum are very much on target, if the subject of politicians sitting and listening to hateful sermons seems vaguely familiar, maybe we should flash back to 2008 when a longtime member of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s congregation was running for president.

Then-candidate Barack Obama managed to evade criticism for the fact that he spent 20 years listening to Wright’s hate speech and received his blessing at his wedding. Using some verbal jujitsu, Obama turned the whole issue into one about race rather than hate or anti-Semitism in his Philadelphia speech on the subject. It was only much later after Wright attacked him as a sellout that Obama went so far as to actually condemn his pastor.

Saperstein asked Santorum:

What responsibility do you believe elected officials or candidates have to address hateful or bigoted speech when it takes place in their presence? Is the responsibility greater if it is said by one of the candidate’s supporters? Are there are circumstances in which you would refuse to stand by someone espousing hate speech? What are they and why not here?

So while Saperstein is on firm ground when he points out Santorum is at fault in this case, it’s worth remembering that candidate Obama didn’t exactly measure up to the standard he’s asking the Republicans to live up to. That’s especially true as Obama’s connection with Wright was a lot more serious than Santorum’s with Terry. We wish the RAC, which did condemn Wright’s hate speech, and its constituency had been as frank with Obama when he was running for office.

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