PHILADELPHIA — In many ways, Barack Obama's speech on race was momentous and edifying.
You could tell it was personal, that he had worked hard on it, all weekend and into the wee hours Tuesday. Overriding aides who objected to putting race center stage, he addressed a painful, difficult subject straightforwardly with a subtlety and decency rare in American politics.
Certainly, Obama was exercising sophisticated damage-control on his problem with Jeremiad Wright. But he did not pander as Mitt Romney did with his very challenging speech about Mormonism, or market-test his own convictions, as most politicians do.
Unlike what the Clintons did to Lani Guinier, responding to her radical racial ideas by throwing her under the bus, Obama went to great pains to honor the human dimension of his relationship with his politically threatening "old uncle," as he calls him.
Displaying his multi-hued, crazy-quilted DNA, he talked about cringing when he heard the white grandmother who raised him use racial stereotypes and confess her fear of passing black men on the street.
He tried to shine a light on that clannish place where grudges and grievances flourish. After racing from race for a year, he plowed in and took a stab at showing blacks what white resentment felt like and whites what black resentment felt like.
(He was spot-on about my tribe of working-class Irish, the ones who have helped break his winning streak in New Hampshire and Ohio, and may do so in Pennsylvania.)
He rightly struck back at right-wing hysteria-mongers. "Talk-show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism," he said, "while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism."
Obama's warning about race in America was redolent of Eugene O'Neill's observation about Ireland: "There is no present or future," O'Neill said, "only the past happening over and over again."
His speech was pitched to superdelegates queasy about his spiritual guide's Malcolm X-ism, the virulent racial pride, the separatism, the deep suspicion of America and the white man — the very things that Obama's "post-racial" identity was supposed to have transcended.
The candidate may have staunched the bleeding, but he did not heal the wounds. His naive and willful refusal to come to terms earlier with the Rev. Wright's anti-American, anti-white and pro-Farrakhan sentiments — echoing his naive and willful refusal to come to terms earlier with the ramifications of his friendship with sleazy fundraiser Tony Rezko — will not be forgotten because of one unforgettable speech.
But then, the most intriguing thing about the speech in the National Constitution Center here, near the statues of the founding fathers who signed the document declaring that "all men are created equal," was not even the part about black and white. It was the new color that Obama unexpectedly wore: gray.
The black and white plaguing the Obama camp was not only about skin color. Facing up to his dubious behavior toward his explosive friends, he had his first rude introduction in his political career to ambivalence, ambiguity and complexity.
Obama did not surrender his pedestal willingly. But he was finally confronted by a problem that neither his charm nor his grandiosity would solve.
He now admits that he had heard the Rev. Wright make "controversial" remarks in church, and that he had a "lapse of judgment" when he let the much-investigated Rezko curry favor by buying the plot of land next to his and selling a slice back so Obama could have a bigger yard. Newly alert to the perils of not seeming patriotic enough, he ended a speech in Pennsylvania the other morning with "God bless America!"
A little disenchantment with Obama could turn out to be a good thing. Too much idealism can blind a leader to reality as surely as too much ideology can.
Up until now, Obama and his worshipers have set it up so that he must be so admirable and ideal and perfect and everything we've ever wanted that any kind of blemish — even a parking ticket — was regarded as a major failing.
With the Clintons, we expect them to be cheesy on ethics, so no one is ever surprised when they are.
But Saint Obama played the politics of character to an absurd extent. For 14 months, his argument for leading the world has been himself — his exquisitely globalized self.
He should be congratulated on the disappearance of the pedestal. Leaders don't need to be messiahs.
Gray is a welcome relief from black and white. …
c.2008 New York Times News Service