There was a time when patriotism and an outsize love of country was a given in anyone running for president of the United States. Not any more. Barack Obama and his wife have demonstrated that being black means never having to say you're sorry about your -- or your fellow blacks'-- conditional love for America.
At two Wisconsin rallies last month, Michelle Obama declared, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country."
For such transparent civic disdain, a white candidate's wife would have been made to crawl over broken glass to beg forgiveness, and both would have babbled endlessly on about her unconditional love for her country. Not the Obamas. For all his vaunted humility, Obama never really admits wrong-doing. Obama "clarified" Michelle's remarks, then Michelle "clarified" her remarks. Neither apologized.
Then on Tuesday, Obama delivered a major speech in Philadelphia to quell public indignation around the incendiary anti-Americanism of his spiritual mentor and erstwhile campaign team member, Jeremiah A. Wright, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
Mr. Wright is an angry, anti-white black conspiracy theorist committed to Afro-centric "black liberation theology." He speaks to his all-black congregation of "this racist United States of America." According to his "Black Value System," "racism is how this country was founded and how this country is run." Wright considers "God damn America" a more fitting salutation to the flag than "God bless America."
Obama has willingly identified himself with Wright's vision for 20 years. Wright married the Obamas and baptized their two children. Yet this church is the very antithesis of what you would expect as the spiritual home of a man running on his ability to heal divisions and transcend racial identity.
But until Tuesday's speech, Obama's response to criticism of Wright had been remarkably tepid: "We don't agree on everything … I've never had a thorough conversation with him about all aspects of politics."
And even in Tuesday's speech, which was well received for its eloquence and lofty sentiments, Obama condemned a few of Wright's "outed" remarks, but did not express remorse for his poor judgment or truly distance himself from Wright.
This struck me particularly: Obama said that Wright was "like an uncle" and he couldn't disown him because uncles "don't stop being a member of your family." That's disingenuous. Even if Wright were a real uncle, Obama would be obliged only to eat Christmas dinner with him, not support his institutionalized bigotry and racial alienation.
Lying down with dogs gives a candidate fleas. Obama should have taken ownership of his long-term lack of judgment. But he didn't. In fact, he implicitly shifted the blame for his moral blindness in asking people not to assign "guilt by association." The real moral flaw, Obama seems to suggest, isn't his association with a racist; rather it is the flaw of judging others.
Which brings us to the pith of the matter. Obama has been planning his bid for the glittering prize for years. He's supposedly a canny fellow. How did he fail to realize that his separatist church (in which his own white mother would not be welcome) and racist pastor were going to be a huge political liability to him? Why didn't he quietly drop out a year ago, and -- here's a radical thought -- join a church that reflects his public persona: a church that encourages and attracts a mixed membership of blacks and whites, and whose pastor preaches unity and race-blindness.
That he stayed at Trinity United suggests he and his wife felt morally comfortable in that pew. We must conclude that until they saw his effect on others, they didn't see anything wrong with the church or with Wright.
Obama's instinct to escape personal censure for a stunningly poor choice of mentor and religious institution speaks to a troubling sense of personal entitlement. Americans' unwillingness to accept such behaviour for what it is speaks to the soft bigotry of low expectations.
I am reminded by this episode of another such Democratic presidential candidate's hypocritical sanctimony: "I smoked, but I didn't inhale." Bill Clinton got a pass on a single joint (although not without sustained ridicule).
Nobody can smoke institutionalized vulgarity for 20 years without inhaling. And no white candidate's career would survive the shame of it. Obama's rhetoric transcends racial division in America. White Americans' guilt-fuelled reluctance to condemn Obama's failings and selective silence embodies it.