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Trusting in America

US elections 2008: By appealing to the intelligence and decency of the American people, Obama placed his fate in their hands

By Michelle Goldberg

19/03/08 "Guardian' -- - Any other serious politician would have thrown Jeremiah Wright under a bus.

Conventional wisdom had already decreed that the liberal black pastor's jeremiads against American sin, unlike the equally scathing rants of leading white evangelicals, were so shocking, so outrageous, that Barack Obama's long association with him was politically toxic. The obvious thing for Obama to do was to try and play down his relationship with the preacher, to pour opprobrium upon him, to sacrifice him to the great banal god of public opinion. Patriotism is itself a religion in the US, and Wright had blasphemed, shouting, in one sermon, that God would damn the country for its unholy treatment of black people, and, in another, that September 11 represented "America's chickens are coming home to roost."

This could have finished Obama's campaign, the pundits warned, and even his supporters feared they were right. There must have been at least some temptation to repudiate the man outright. Instead, after denouncing Wright's most inflammatory statements, Obama said this:

"As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children ... I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."

The bravery of this doubling down was astonishing. It may also turn out to be politically smart, because by not spinning and denying how close he was to Wright, Obama has shut down months of speculation, taken away the bait that hordes of right-wing journalists and bloggers have been slobbering over. We will not have to endure months of breathless exposes attempting to prove the link between the two men. Obama explained it in a way that was full of subtlety and sensitivity, precisely those qualities stomped out of political discourse by endless fusillades of talk-show triviality. He bet - and this is a very risky wager indeed - than Americans are smarter and more discerning than their media.

That's why the speech exemplifies the deepest virtue of Obama's campaign, which is its stand against the politics of picayune bullshit.

Americans have endured election after election in which endlessly amplified talking heads have harped on risible questions of style and shallow analysis of dubious microtrends (Microtrends, of course, being the title of a book by Hillary Clinton's chief strategist). Who can forget all the blathering about Al Gore's embrace of earth tones and the implications for his masculinity? Or speculation as to whether John Kerry's windsurfing would sink him? George Bush had to drive the nation into multi-fronted catastrophe before we stopped hearing about what a fine beer-drinking companion he would make (and that despite the fact that he's a teetotaling recovering alcoholic.)

Worse, in our recent history the pundits' speculations have too often proved correct.

Maybe they've been self-fulfilling. Americans have, time and again, regarded symbolic blunders as more important than life-or-death policy mistakes. To witness the last few US elections was to be convinced that HL Mencken was right when he said: "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." Political consultants clearly believe this, for all their mawkish paeans to everyman. And so they make politics as idiotically simple as they understand - with reason - Americans themselves to be.

Obama rejects this with everything he does. The hope at the center of his campaign is that Mencken was wrong, and Obama's success at the polls has tempted more than a few out of their carapace of cynicism.

In his speech today, he showed that he believes that Americans are capable of hearing about the frustrated rage of black people without seeing terrifying visions of clenched-fisted separatists or mau-mauing hucksters. He showed that he sympathizes with the subterranean disappointments that fuel right-wing populism, but he refused to pander to it. "Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan coalition," he said. "Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talkshow hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism."

These are not the soothing bromides one expects to hear in the speech of a candidate who is supposed to be desperately trying to reassure working-class white people.

At the end of his speech, Obama issued a challenge not just to the country, but also to the media, and even to those of his supporters like myself who have jumped on the outbursts of some Clintonites: "We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words," he said. "We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies."

Or we can have the civilised, intelligent debate that Obama somehow thinks this country is capable of. He is remarkably close to winning the Democratic nomination, and to the presidency, and he has staked it all on a belief in American decency. If that's not patriotism, what on earth is?

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