Friday, March 14, 2008

The thread of truth in the web of lies

If Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination, his longtime church pastor is going to be a big political headache.

Most voters won't hold Obama responsible for the Rev. Jerimiah Wright's most provocative pulpit pronunciamentos. Most voters won't automatically assume that Obama shares the views expressed at the Trinity United Church of Christ. But for those voters who are prone to believe that Obama is insufficiently American, or a Muslim foreign agent who is bent of destroying America from within, certain Wright rhetorical tidbits will fit the profile just fine.

From 2003: "The government gives (blacks) drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

From 2006: "America is still the No. 1 killer in the world...We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns, and the training of professional killers...We bombed Cambodia, Iraq and Nicaragua, killing women and children while trying to get public opinion turned against Castro and Ghadhafi...We supported Zionism shamelessly while ignoring the Palestinians and branding anybody who spoke out against it as being anti-Semitic...We care nothing about human life if the end justifies the means...We started the AIDS virus..."

From 2001, five days after 9/11: "We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."

Those excerpts are a treasure trove for voters who want to believe the worst about Obama. (The Obama-as-Muslim scenario is actually contradicted by the fact that Wright's church is Christian, but this will be overlooked.) I can foresee the circulation of this kind of meta-rumor: "Barack Obama, who was schooled as a Muslim in a foreign country and who was sworn into office on a Koran, and who refuses to wear an American flag pin or place his hand on his heart during the Pledge of Allegience, has for 20 years entrusted his soul on Sundays to a pastor who rails against 'God damn America,' attacks Israel, and blames our own country for 9/11."

And I know first-hand that the rumors have legs; if anything, the rumors have metastisized. One emailer wrote me yesterday: "I know someone who watched the debates. According to this person, at the start of the one debate she said that Obama just stood there during the Pledge of Allegiance while the other candidates placed their hands over their hearts. I have been looking for video of this ever since. Have you seen this?" I wrote back to say that, if Obama had ever behaved that way on national television, at the start of a presidential debate, we would all have been talking about it. I told her that this particular rumor was just a new form of the old Pledge of Allegiance lie that has been circulating for many months.

But back to the Wright factor. When ABC News aired a segment on Wright yesterday morning, a Obama spokesman said that the candidate "does not think of the pastor of his church in political terms. Like a member of his family, there are things (Wright) says with which Sen. Obama deeply disagrees. But now that he is (newly) retired, that doesn't detract from Se. Obama's affection for Rev. Wright, or his appreciation for the good works he has done."

And here's Obama himself, quoted yesterday in a Pittsburgh paper: "This is a pastor who is on the brink of retirement who in the past has made some controversial statements. I profoundly disagree with some of these statements. Obviously, I disagree with (the 9/11 sermon). Here is what happens when you just cherry-pick statements from a guy who had a 40-year career as a pastor. There are times when people say things that are just wrong. But I think it's important to judge me on what I've said in the past and what I believe."

Most voters probably accept that line of reasoning. But it's not just the paranoid who could pose problems for Obama. Many Jewish voters have been slow to embrace Obama - in the exit polls thus far, they reportedly have favored Hillary Clinton by six percentage points - in part because they too have heard the rumors and seen the viral emails. Wright's remarks championing the Palestinians as victims of "state terrorism" will further compel Obama to spend more time allaying their concerns.

Jewish voters are a fraction of the electorate, but they are disproportionately strong in the biggest electoral states. For instance, if senior Jewish Floridians Florida cherry-pick some of the false rumors and tie them to Wright's documented words, Obama as nominee could face serious obstacles in that crucial state. It needs to be remembered that a grand lie is often spun from a thread of truth.

Obama's whole campaign is a daring appeal to our better angels; the problem is that some people are often prepared to believe the worst. Obama is merely battling Hillary Clinton at the moment; if he wins the nomination, he will be battling the basest impulses of human nature.