Columnist Reaction to Obama Speech Was Not Always Predictable

By: Dave Astor

Barack Obama’s widely reported Tuesday speech about his former pastor and race relations in general is getting not-always-predictable reviews from syndicated pundits.

Several liberal columnists praised the talk, while other liberal commentators had mixed feelings. Several conservative writers criticized the talk, but a few of them also had at least some kind words for Obama’s speech amidst their criticism.

Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune and Tribune Media Services wrote: “If political campaigns were political movies, Barack Obama’s Big Speech deserves a big Oscar…. He bravely fought to save his presidential campaign by affirming principles over expediency as an argument for improving politics.”

Cynthia Tucker of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Universal Press Syndicate said: “Obama may have wished to avoid this moment, but when he found he could not, he handled it with courage and candor and grace.”

Tucker added that Obama “might easily have handled the moment differently. He might have simply used [Rev. Jeremiah] Wright for his ‘Sister Souljah’ moment, as Bill Clinton used inflammatory remarks by the black rap artist to signal to whites his rejection of black extremism…. But he refused to pander or offer safe, poll-tested bromides.”

Wright, as most observers of the presidential race now know, has criticized the U.S. for racism and for a foreign-policy approach that may have indirectly led to the 9/11 attacks.

Another Universal columnist, Richard Reeves, wrote: “If Barack Obama is elected president, his speech on race in America will be remembered as one of the greatest in the country’s history. If he loses, it will still be remembered as a terrific speech, an astonishing display of grace under pressure.”

Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post and Washington Post Writers Group (WPWG) said: “Once again, the conventional wisdom proved stunningly unwise. Barack Obama was supposed to be on his heels…. But instead of running away, Obama issued a challenge to those who would exploit the issue of race: Bring it on.

“Yesterday morning, in what may be remembered as a landmark speech regardless of who becomes the next president, Obama established new parameters for a dialogue on race in America that might actually lead somewhere — that might break out of the sour stasis of grievance and countergrievance, of insensitivity and hypersensitivity, of mutual mistrust.”

Two other WPWG columnists — Kathleen Parker and Michael Gerson — had more mixed reviews of the speech.

Parker said Obama’s speech “was eloquent, inspiring, and will be read in schools for generations. But between the lines of change and reconciliation were a discomfiting hint of buried fury, a sense of racial righteousness, and a tacit approval attached to his expressed disapproval of Wright’s now-famous raves.”

She added: “The question still remains: Why did Obama, future author of racial harmony, stay with a preacher whose black nationalist leanings were no secret?”

WPWG’s Michael Gerson, a former member of the Bush administration, wrote that Obama’s speech “was one of the finest political performances under pressure since John F. Kennedy at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960. It also fell short in significant ways.

“The problem with Obama’s argument is that Wright is not a symbol of the strengths and weaknesses of African Americans.”

Froma Harrop of Creators Syndicate said: “Holding a tough hand of cards, Obama responded to Wright’s outbursts with admirable finesse. He downplayed their outrageous … nature by labeling them ‘divisive,’ a moderate word. He refused to disown his pastor. He couldn’t. Doing so would have seemed craven after their long history together.”

She added: “Given the calamity of slavery and Jim Crow, one must give slack to black anger [of the kind expressed by Wright]. But there are limits, especially for an avowedly post-racial candidate.”

Tony Blankley of Creators said: “In his speech Tuesday, elegant as it was, Obama seemed to be saying something to the effect of: ‘Live with it, America; that is the way many people feel.'”

Another Creators columnist, Susan Estrich, wrote: “It was an eloquent and powerful speech. But Barack Obama’s inspirational oratory left one fundamental question unanswered, at least for this white American…. A pastor is not a relative.”

She was referring to Obama saying in his speech that Wright was like an uncle to him.

Creators-syndicated Roger Simon, who had mixed feelings about the speech, noted: “If Obama was not attempting to excuse the statements of Wright, he was certainly attempting to put them in context. ‘For the men and women of Rev. Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years,’ he said.”

Thomas Sowell of Creators, in mostly criticizing the speech, wrote: “Like the Soviet show trials during the 1930s purges, Obama’s speech was not supposed to convince critics but to reassure supporters and fellow-travelers, in order to keep the ‘useful idiots’ useful.”

And Michelle Malkin of Creators said: “Barack Obama — the self-anointed soul-fixing, nation-healing political Messiah — has lost his glow. That is the takeaway from the beleaguered Democratic presidential candidate’s ‘major’ speech in Philadelphia. For all of his supposedly unique and transcendent understanding of race in America, Obama’s talk amounted to the same old, same old.”

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