Alex Brandon/AP

Obama's challenge

Politics | A historic speech has not silenced all critics or lifted all polls

Issue: "Shattered dreams," April 5, 2008

Some Americans say Barack Obama is the most inspiring political leader in at least 40 years. Others say he is a great deceiver. Machiavellians say the words leader and deceiver go together, so he is both.

The second half of March tested Obama's ability to deal with his first major public-relations crisis, the offensive sermonizing of Jeremiah Wright, his pastor for 20 years. Wright, retiring this summer after 36 years as senior minister of the 6,000-member Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, became an issue when taped sermon excerpts showed Wright from the pulpit asking God to damn America, which he called the "U.S. of KKK-A." Among Wright's vicious charges: The U.S. government invented the HIV virus to wipe out black people.

Unable to ignore those incendiary sound bites, Obama said he hadn't been aware of such statements during the 20 years he listened to the man he called his "spiritual mentor." Then he delivered a 37-minute speech that brilliantly moved the spotlight from Wright's bigotry to America's battle against bigotry, and in so doing moved the spotlight from the specific detail that was damaging his candidacy.

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In his speech Obama renounced Wright's remarks, calling them "wrong and divisive." He said they "denigrate both the greatness and goodness of our nation," but he added that it's unimportant whether "I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words." What is important: Don't pay attention to this "distraction," because if we do "in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change."

This was impressive: As Obama moved the spotlight, for reasons he deemed altruistic, he implied that his critics were really the ones who had moved the spotlight. He brought uplift to what his critics thought might be a fatal downdraft: Obama said that Wright mistakenly "spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country . . . is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know-what we have seen is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation."

Obama showed his true genius by agreeing that Wright was wrong, but then contending that the only way to prove him wrong is to vote for the candidate Wright has emphatically endorsed, Barack Obama. In short, to vote against Wright, vote for Obama. To support Wright, vote for McCain (or Hillary Clinton).

Conservatives didn't buy the maneuver. Michael Gerson, the former Bush speechwriter who is now a Washington Post columnist, called the speech "excellent and important" but noted that Wright's extremism makes him "a dangerous man. . . . Barack Obama is not a man who hates. But he chose to walk with a man who does."

Some columnists thought the Wright issue would continue to haunt the Obama campaign. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times admired the speech but wrote that Obama's "naïve and willful refusal to come to terms earlier with the Rev. Wright's anti-American, anti-white and pro-Farrakhan sentiments . . . will not be forgotten because of one unforgettable speech."

At least the initial press stories, though, were usually starry-eyed. Mike Dorning of the Chicago Tribune wrote: "Not in decades has a prominent candidate so bluntly tackled the issue of prejudice. The address invited comparisons to John F. Kennedy's speech on his Catholic faith almost a half-century ago."

Reporters missed another comparison, though: to Richard Nixon's "Checkers speech" of 1952. Vice presidential candidate Nixon, accused of accepting $18,000 (about $145,000 today) in illegal campaign contributions, spoke passionately about how the money was merely reimbursement for expenses. He offered up specific detail of his personal assets, mortgages, and life insurance, showed that his lifestyle was not extravagant, and denied that his wife, Pat, had a mink coat: She wore a "respectable Republican cloth coat."

But Nixon did admit receiving a contribution that had added to his family wealth: A traveling salesman had given the Nixon family a Cocker Spaniel named Checkers. Nixon said he didn't care if his opponents made the dog into an issue, because "the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it." Nixon survived politically. So, last month, did Obama, who said he was gonna keep his connection with Wright, who "has been like family with me."

Worth watching, though: Obama's poll numbers were down slightly and he now trailed presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain in head-to-head contests. McCain's positive numbers increased as he traveled to the Middle East and Europe, meeting there with world leaders and discussing American policy on troop levels in Iraq, the military's use of torture, closing Guantanamo Bay prison, and curbing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Pennsylvania prep

The primaries are coming: a look at the Obama and Clinton headquarters

By Rebecca Miller

PITTSBURGH-Hillary Clinton's long march to the White House is in trouble. She needs a huge win in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary to reduce her delegate deficit and show super delegates that she is much more likely to win key big states than Barack Obama. But a look at the campaign headquarters in Pittsburgh suggests signs of Obama's strength heading into the big day.

Obama's campaign headquarters is a North Highland Avenue storefront in East Liberty, one of the city's economically depressed sections and home to a large black population. One afternoon, volunteers crammed the narrow space decorated with campaign posters, working frantically to register voters before the 30-day deadline.

The Clinton campaign chose to locate in the thriving business district on the second floor of a Smithfield Street building. A handful of volunteers and campaign staff members worked quietly at folding tables and laptops scattered throughout the rooms. Its presence appeared to be largely unknown to those who work nearby.

Among the devoted Obama supporters is Paul Combe, a 22-year-old political science major at Carnegie Mellon University. He blogs on political issues, volunteers with the campaign's voter canvassing, and told WORLD that Obama is the "best thing to happen to participatory democracy in America. . . . Barack Obama is the first candidate of my time who has talked to Americans like adults. He has a fundamental respect for us and our views that other previous and current candidates utterly lack."

On the Clinton side is Colleen Cooke, a professor of recreational therapy at Slippery Rock University who volunteers with the Clinton phone bank and has helped with rallies. "I want to get her elected," Cooke said. "I'm still holding out hope that she gets the nomination." She also hopes the primary will punch her ticket as a Clinton delegate to the Democratic National Convention in August.

Clinton has endorsements from the big three of Pennsylvania state and local officeholders: Gov. Ed Rendell, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, and Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl. The state mirrors Ohio's Rust Belt demographics, with one of the country's largest aging populations and a high union membership at 13.5 percent. It also has one of the nation's smallest minority populations. These factors favor Clinton, who, with strong support from whites, women, and working-class voters, has maintained a lead in the polls.

A win in Pennsylvania will be a good talking point for Clinton's contention that she'd garner Rust Belt electoral votes and Obama might not. Grove City College Professor Michael Coulter, though, notes that "she'd really have to clobber Obama to pick up a lot of delegates here." Obama is likely to do well with urban and upscale Democratic voters, Coulter said, and will strive to stay within 10 percentage points of Clinton. If he succeeds, Obama's march to the nomination is likely to continue.


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