Elmer Smith: Yesterday, Obama filled a tall order

Posted: March 19, 2008

I DON'T PAY MUCH atten-

tion to political speeches. If I don't know who you are, I don't care what you say.

Hillary Clinton's spiel about readiness and experience, Barack Obama's sermons about hope and unity are all just words unless they match up with my impressions of who they really are.

That's why I don't have a horse in this race yet and won't until I'm convinced that I know who these people are and what they really stand for.

So I didn't bother to break my schedule yesterday to go to the Constitution Center and hear Obama try to talk his way out of a situation that wasn't even of his making.

When I was asked to write about it, I decided to read the transcript without watching the video. I did not want to be swayed by rhetorical flourishes or applause lines.

I've heard him speak to convention crowds, sat beside him as he was questioned closely by a small group of black columnists, seen him respond to opponents and inquisitors in televised debates.

But the man and the message who emerged from the written transcript of that speech yesterday are more real to me today than either has been at any point in this campaign.

The sad irony is that the fiery rhetoric of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., may have a greater impact on Obama's future, and even on our future, than anything Obama can say from this point on.

Wright, who served in the U.S. Marines when he didn't need a job or the benefits of the GI bill, is more of a patriot than most of the people who dismiss him as a hatemonger because of the heated rhetoric Obama now feels compelled to repudiate.

For much of White America, who see his connection to Wright as confirmation of their worst fears about being represented by a black man, yesterday's speech won't be enough.

For some black Americans, who will view him as throwing his pastor under the bus, his public repudiation of Rev. Wright's words will confirm their fears that he may have to separate himself from them to win the Oval Office.

So, in distancing himself from his pastor's words, he tried to position himself as a man whose experiences - black and white - make him uniquely qualified to voice the aspirations and frustrations of the victims on both sides of the racial divide.

Geraldine Ferraro was right for the wrong reasons. Obama would not be in this position if he were a white man. As a white man, he would never have been that brown-skinned child who loved and was loved by a white grandmother who feared and reviled black men.

To be in this position, he had to have credentials impressive enough to pass White America's muster, and sensibilities black enough for him to express our issues in our voice.

As successful as his campaign has been, he was never more than one false move away from failure. One false move is all it takes for some Americans to see him as no different from the rest of "them."

In a tight race, this moment could prove pivotal. But he handled it with uncommon grace.

"I can no more disavow him," he said of Rev. Wright "than I can disavow the black community.

"I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother . . . a woman who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."

He offered a promise - a promise to unite the two sides of his family tree around our common goals.

He challenged white America to acknowledge "that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people."

He challenged Black Americans to relate to "the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family."

He asks us both "to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams."

That's a tall order. But yesterday for the first time, he convinced me that he can fill it. *

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith

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