Comparing Crises

A reader writes:

A response to your treatment of Dr. Paul and Senator Obama's personal racial crises within their campaigns. Wouldn't you agree that there are real similarities between the two issues within each campaign?

I take the point. No one argues that the ugliest views of Lew Rockwell or Jeremiah Wright are the views of Ron Paul or Barack Obama. Equally, the ugliness of some of Wright's and Rockwell's views does not exhaust the full views of either of them. Both Paul and Obama tolerated or over-looked some of the ugliness. The obvious difference is that Paul financially profited from those ugly newsletters; Obama attended a church that included some of those sentiments, but many, many others of greater breadth and depth. Should we give greater lee-way to black racism than to white racism? I don't think so; but I do think it's important to understand the cultural context of the black church and the preaching tradition which does occasionally veer into improvised popping off that might be viewed a little less seriously than a pre-meditated, printed pamphlet.

But while I do believe these are legitimate questions, I also believe that what the candidate says and believes and his own public record are far more important than the views of those with whom he associates. When you have a man like Obama who has a long, impassioned, searingly honest record on race and his long attempt to overcome it, it seems to me that that should be our primary focus. Ditto with Paul, whose courageous attempt to express classical conservatism in fiscal and foreign policy added a vital dimension to the debate in the GOP primary. My reader continues:

I happen to agree with your support for both Barack Obama and (your early support) for Ron Paul, and I hate to suggest the double standard garbage you've already dealt with, but there is possibly some room between your responses to both.

First, your responses to Dr. Paul's ridiculous newsletters are distilled below:

In your first post on the subject, you noted that "[The Newsletters] are a repellent series of tracts, full of truly appalling bigotry… at best, Paul was negligent in having these things published under his name… there is a simple way to address this: Paul needs to say not only that he did not pen these excrescences, he needs to explain how his name was on them and disown them completely." 

And in a later post: "I should say I think less of Ron Paul after reading this article than I did before. Much less. I am not persuaded he is a bigot (like Jamie, apparently), and I remain impressed by the message and spirit of the campaign he has waged."

And per Senator Obama, the Wright Stuff:

It's nutty, offensive and paranoid stuff. And it is perfectly legitimate for reporters and voters to ask questions. It is not much nuttier than Falwell and Robertson, however. And I don't think it's racist to understand that the black church has a different cultural style in its preaching and activism style that helps add some dimension to Wright's record. If you read Obama's books and listen to him speak about his church, it's clear that he was not drawn by Wright's more inflammatory and offensive language. His engagement with the Church was an attempt to connect with the life and feelings of a black urban class he had never truly belonged to and whom he intended to represent. We can forget what an outsider Obama was when he first came to Chicago.

Nonetheless, Obama needs to be much more forceful and candid in explaining his relationship with Wright. I'm a little leery of getting in between a man and his minister - it's not unlike the lawyer-client relationship in some ways. And, goodness knows, I have had many a priest with whom I have disagreed or even found offensive. But like many people, I wouldn't sit through one of these sermons, let alone come back for more. And it would be helpful, to say the very least, if Obama told us more candidly why he did and does.

Although there are moments of impressive consistency here, I can't help but suggest that your response to Paul's racism scandal was based on the Jeffersonian notion of "Principle, not men," and your willingness to accept Senator Obama's relationship with his minister, no matter how alienating his commentary was, suggests that your allegiance to him is based far more on the man than his ideas.

Like I said, I happen to agree with you, but I thought that there was an illuminating value to your two responses to these issues.

I agree. I've spent longer watching and thinking about the life of Obama than of Paul; and I admire the content of his character in a way that I cannot say the same of Paul. Perhaps therein lies the slight difference. And perhaps too I have some deference to an experience of being black in America that I cannot share and have never experienced myself.