Reading Obama | Bleader

Reading Obama

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An editorial in the new issue of the National Review scolds Barack Obama for maintaining ties that were too close for too long with Trinity United Church of Christ and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And it wonders, why did Obama join Trinity in the first place? No friend of Obama's, the National Review thinks some answers can be found in a story from the Reader's archives. The profile of Obama by Hank De Zutter "that appears to shed some light" ran on December 8, 1995, soon after Obama decided to run for the Illinois Senate. It's pretty much the one and only portrait of the candidate as a young man. 

The National Review editorial leans heavily on reporting on Obama by Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. According to the National Review, De Zutter "tells us that the young politician did not accept 'the unrealistic politics of integrationist assimilation -- which helps a few upwardly mobile blacks to "move up, get rich, and move out.'

The NR goes on, "Obama didn't embrace black nationalism to the extent that Wright did -- but, according to the profile and to Obama's first book [Dreams From My Father], that was only because Obama regarded that approach as an impractical way to organize constituencies for his own brand of change."

And what brand was that? The editorial continues: "For Obama and Wright, integration encouraged blacks to buy into the notion that they can overcome obstacles like racism and poverty on their own, without relying on the government. That kind of self-reliance makes it harder to build coalitions for liberal policies, and such coalition-building is what community organizing -- Obama's post-college vocation -- is all about."

In other words (I think), Obama believed integration promoted self-reliance. But self-reliance made Obama's job of community organizing harder. Which means . . . that Obama opposed integration? Does the National Review intend to position Obama this fall as someone whose history of community organizing and church membership prove he's actually a segregationist?

Maybe. Here's Kurtz had to say in the article the National Review was drawing on: "Obama's repudiation of integrationist upward mobility is fully consistent with his career as a community organizer, his general sympathy for leftist critics of the American 'system,' and of course his membership at Trinity. Obama, we are told [by De Zutter], 'quickly learned that integration was a one-way street, with blacks expected to assimilate into a white world that never gave ground.'" It's presumably a short jump from critiquing integration to repudiating it. Kurtz continues, "De Zutter gives us a clear glimpse of Obama's radicalism. . . . [He] shows us that the full story of Obama's ties to [the Reverend Michael] Pfleger and Wright is both more disturbing and more politically relevant than we've realized up to now."

Back to the National Review editorial. It says that according to De Zutter, "Obama said he was 'tired of seeing the moral fervor of black folks whipped up -- at the speaker's rostrum and from the pulpit -- and then allowed to dissipate because there's no agenda, no concrete program for change.' The formula Obama devised was simple: He would supply the agenda, and people like Wright would supply the rage."

In other words (I think), Obama and Wright -- make that "people like Wright" -- were in cahoots.

My reading of De Zutter's profile is very different. Obama had observed that the rage was in endless supply, and he wanted some good to finally come of it. But he did not intend to "supply the agenda." In a passage of the Reader article that the National Review ignores, De Zutter explains: "What makes Obama different from other progressive politicians is that he doesn't just want to create and support progressive programs; he wants to mobilize the people to create their own. He wants to stand politics on its head, empowering citizens by bringing together the churches and businesses and banks, scornful grandmothers and angry young."

De Zutter's article, by the way, does not make a single mention of either the Reverend Jeremiah Wright or Trinity United Church of Christ. But so it goes with fundamental texts. Stanley Kurtz and the National Review found in it what they wanted to find in it -- not one word less, not one word more.

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