March 19, 2008

Well OK Then

Barack Obama yesterday gave the bravest, most honest, most comprehensive and accurate explication of contemporary racial politics I have heard any politician give in my lifetime.

First, let's acknowledge that it's a little absurd and disappointing that the candidate felt a need to speak at all. I understand the desire to publicly distance himself from Jeremiah Wright, but it's disgraceful that such a need is pressed upon him but not upon John McCain, whose affiliations with not one but two overtly bigoted religious figures — one of whom, televangelist Rod Parsley, he has called his "spiritual guide" — could peel paint off the walls in any house of decency. Nevermind that, impolitic tone aside, nothing Wright said was actually, well, wrong. Can it really be news that, comparatively speaking, the black experience in America is an embittering one?

Nevertheless, Obama managed to fashion a rejoinder to Wright and to Wright's critics at once. And it was a capacious one, making room for the richness of American perspective on racial politics. Obama hasn't so much seen something new as he's managed to articulate the state of race relations, and race politics, in America at this moment in a way that gives credence to every point of view, and even every emotion, without the caricature or condescension so endemic to our public discourse. He has been candid without being spiteful, optimistic without being blithe. He treated this most mistreated subject with clarity and with dignity.

And in doing so, he's laid down a gauntlet — not this time for his Democratic competitor or even for McCain, but for citizens. For voters. It is the gauntlet of maturity. There is no guarantee the gauntlet will be retrieved; any honest American must, with sadness, concede this. But there it lies, where it did not the day before. And I don't mind saying that I became an Obama fan today. He transcended the politics I have known for my entire life with this speech; he spoke to me as an adult, as a student of history, and as a person of conscience. That's what I'm after in leadership. It is, in the end, a simple thing.

I hope we'll take up this implicit challenge. I hope Obama will be the Democratic nominee, and I hope I'll have the chance, along with millions of others, to vote for him come next November. I hope the level of rhetoric in the campaign will be raised from here on out, and I even dare to hope that McCain will be called to give a similar accounting for his religious compatriots (and I'd dearly love to hear it if he does).*

* And then I'd like to see Jon Stewart, whose pervasive affection for McCain remains mysterious to me, try to spin it as a character asset, or failing that as plain old comedy gold.

March 08, 2008


Yes, Samantha Power made headlines today by resigning from her position as an adviser to the Obama campaign in the wake of an interview in which she called Hillary Clinton a "monster." And that's all a little shocking and a little silly and a little schoolgirl-crush-ish of her. But real, substantive campaign news of the day came from another Obama advisor, John Brennan, who gave an interview of his own in which he claimed "I do believe strongly that they [telecoms who broke the law by turning call data from their subscribers over to the federal government in the absence of a warrant] should be granted ... immunity, because they were told to do so by the appropriate authorities."

Brennan is arguing against his own candidate in this instance; Obama's official public position has been to oppose immunity. It's one of the reasons he won the endorsement of former candidate Chris Dodd, for whom this was a definitive issue.

A quick glance at the comments on that Think Progress page, BTW, will prove disheartening for anyone who's harbored visions of Democratic unity. And you will note, as I've discussed here earlier, that there's little purity or above-the-fray tone on the part of the Obama camp. In fact, it gets downright vituperative, with not a few stabs at Think Progress for even running the piece. Post-partisan indeed.

A word to Brennan: actually, the "appropriate authority" in this case would have been a warrant. Any other "authority" is decidedly inappropriate, a violation of the Fourth Amendment as well as the FISA statute itself.

A word to those Obama supporters, on TP and elsewhere, who defended Brennan with the claim that he demonstrates Obama's openness to surrounding himself with different views: that's an interesting point, and it would be a fair one to make if Brennan's comment had been made privately, in a staff meeting or behind closed doors with the candidate and/or other advisors. But this was a public comment, and what's more it was an argument — an attempt to sway opinion. When you have a position on a subject, as a candidate or as an officeholder, it's self-defeating to have members of your own administration making public arguments against you. That tends to make it impossible for people to know what your administration stands for, and thus what policy you're after — never mind that legislation is hard enough to negotiate even when everyone on your team is pulling in the same direction. There's already another team out there, after all. Debate in the officer's mess can be free and vigorous, but once you're beyond that space the public position must be coherent and consistent. Otherwise, people see either deception or weakness, and neither is good.

If Obama really is opposed to immunity, he needs to let this guy go — if not because he publicly broke ranks, then because he's a legal idiot. "Appropriate authorities" isn't even close.