Bill Clinton may not be the most graceful in utterance of our public men, but no one has ever thought his political instincts to be less than finely tuned. So when the other day he said: “I think it would be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country” — meaning, as the context made clear, John McCain and Mrs. Clinton and rather pointedly leaving out Barack Obama — he was pointing his fellow Democrats at a real electoral problem for them and not just engaging, as an Obama adviser suggested, in “McCarthyism.”
In fact, the charge of McCarthyism is itself about as close as we get these days to McCarthyism. Certainly, any kind word directed towards the late senator from Wisconsin is in our current media climate at least as discreditable to the speaker as praise of Communism would have been in McCarthy’s day.
It is a media truism that questioning a candidate’s patriotism — at least if he is a Democrat — is going beyond the bounds of civilized discourse. But forbidding the direct imputation of a lack of patriotism, or crying foul at the indirect one, does not mean that voters will be unaware of some of the more unsettling implications of Senator Obama’s refusal to disown — as opposed to merely disagreeing with — the rantings of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright on America’s endless culpability as “the number one killer in the world.”
This has been a problem for the Democratic Party going back to George McGovern. Michael Novak, who was writing speeches for the McGovern campaign in 1972, tells the story of writing one for the candidate that was to be delivered at a Catholic high school in Chicago. “Be as critical of the war as you like,” Mr. Novak advised, “but don’t call it ‘immoral.’ These are people whose fathers, sons and brothers are fighting there, and they don’t think they’re doing anything immoral in serving their country.” Being from the Catholic working class himself, he said, he knew that when such people hear the word “immoral,” they automatically assume that it is being directed at them by the WASP establishment.
But to most of the electorate, it became more and more clear that Senator McGovern was the captive of a kind of academic anti-Americanism that was then much to be heard in the “debate” over the Vietnam war and that was later to be characterized by another renegade Democrat as the “blame America first” tendency. The fact that McGovern subsequently won the lowest share of the popular vote of any major-party candidate in the history of American presidential elections — and this in spite of his opposition to what was by then a highly unpopular war — can surely not be unrelated.
Nor can it be completely irrelevant to Senator Obama’s wish to hang on to his association with Rev. Wright. The ABC newsman and former Bill Clinton aide, George Stephanopoulos, spoke of this possibly suicidal loyalty as being “in many ways an act of honor,” and he’s quite right. But the question that Americans will be asking in November will be who, then, is the relevant honor group? Who, that is, are those to whom the candidate’s loyalty is more important to him even than getting elected? Is it just a few hate-mongers like the Rev. Wright preaching “God damn America”? Or is it some larger group, like those working-class Catholics who heard the word “immoral” as an attack on them?
“I can no more disown him,” said Senator Obama about Rev. Wright, “than I can disown the black community.” That was of course his attempt to make it seem that the answer to the question was that he was really being loyal not to the Reverend but to his roots among a people who have historically been the victims of the white majority wielding the levers of political power which they have good reason to know has not always been morally applied. Never mind that he is half-white. Never mind that his father was an African who was not the descendant of slaves or that he had a relatively privileged upbringing. He wishes to claim “the black community” as his own people, as he has every right to do.
But he is also reminding us that that community still defines itself by its victimization. The Catholics whom Michael Novak knew would also close ranks against the criticisms of outsiders had nevertheless found a way to identify their own honor with that of their country. This is what “the black community” as such (though not, of course, individual blacks) has never been able to do. It was adopted en bloc in the 1960s by the academic and McGovernite left as evidence of America’s institutional oppression of minorities, and ever since the most outspoken and radical black leaders — even, at times, Rev. Martin Luther King — have tended to treat the honor of their country and that of their own community as antithetical.
The wild theories of the Rev. Wright about AIDS or drugs as part of a government-sponsored plot against “people of color” and such-like nonsense are really just rhetorical ploys, meant to keep resentments at the boil as a way of enforcing political solidarity in the black community. In other words, by insisting on identifying himself so closely with that community, Senator Obama is proclaiming himself programmatically anti-American. He is also identifying himself with the McGovernite left whose more extreme elements do not shy away from claiming, as Rev. Wright does, that even the 9/11 terror-attacks on America were America’s own fault.
This is what Bill Clinton, whose own election owed something to a deliberate repudiation of Jesse Jackson (through his surrogate, Sister Souljah) was so maladroitly hinting at the other day, just as he was on the last occasion when he caused controversy in this campaign by comparing Senator Obama to the Rev. Jackson. Senator Obama himself has now, in effect, let it be known that the former president was right in both cases.