Jeremiah Wright 1, Sound Bite 0| 04/29/2008
Since when do you have “amens” at the National Press Club? Apparently when Jeremiah Wright is the speaker!
I once knew a city editor in Philadelphia who would say “amen” to a dry Rob Roy at 2 in the afternoon, which is the closest anyone ever came to exuberance in the newsrooms of my youth. But anybody who watched any cable this past weekend could be forgiven for thinking that Rupert Murdoch just launched a new Jeremiah Wright Channel, as first the man appeared on Bill Moyers Journal, then his entire keynote address to the NAACP was broadcast and re-broadcast by CNN, and finally he did a brisk 30-minute speech to the National Press Club followed by an even brisker half-hour Q&A session Monday morning that was simultaneously broadcast by at least five networks. Whew! What’s going on here?
Some evidence of what’s going on here could be gleaned from the steady blow-by-blow commentary of the interchangeable anchor people who commented on the unfolding media blitz that clearly took the Barack Obama campaign by surprise. Chris Matthews said bluntly, “Why doesn’t this man go away?” Obama’s political advisory team got on the phones to the networks and asked them, in effect, “Why are you giving Wright this platform? How often in the past have you re-broadcast any speech to the NAACP?” And the media answered, in effect, “Hey, it’s a breaking story, why isn’t Obama shooting him down?” To which Obama’s organization said, “How many times, and in how many ways, do we need to repeat that he doesn’t speak for Obama?”
And they were right. It wasn’t about Obama. That never rang true to me, this idea that intemperate statements by a preacher should come crashing down on a candidate because he happens to worship at that man’s church. First of all, the media already agreed back in December, after the Mitt Romney speech at Texas A&M, that we were not going to do this to any candidate! Second, the implication by the media that Wright should shut up in order to help Obama’s campaign raises two questions: 1) Why should he care about helping Obama’s campaign? He’s his pastor, not his campaign manager. 2) Why would the media want help for any particular campaign? Not a single Hair Helmet spoke up to say, “Let Wright speak. We trashed him, it’s his turn to talk.”
To Chris Matthews, especially, I would say, “The man is a preacher. He’s not allowed to go away and he’s not allowed to be ‘temperate.’ That would be the equivalent of a soldier abandoning the battlefield.”
But what Jeremiah Wright alleged about the recent controversy didn’t ring true either. He kept saying, “This is not about me, it’s about the black church.” He was implying that somehow there was a conspiracy afoot to bring down the black church, specifically the so-called “prophetic” black church that speaks hard words to the government and the overlords of our culture. One brilliant moment in Wright’s speech to the press, I thought, was his disavowal of Black Liberation Theology in the form of a compliment to James H. Cone, its inventor, followed by a brief outline of his own view of the transforming gospel (specifically the calls to action of Jeremiah 41 and the Jesus of Luke 4), a view that is color-blind and unsentimental and ends in reconciliation.
There’s no conspiracy to bring down the black church. There’s no failure to understand the black church, at least not any greater failure than the general lack of interest in the word “church” itself. Most people, but especially the working press, would be content with a black church that’s silent, a black church that’s noisy but out of view, or a black church that ceases to exist entirely. To constantly assert that people are assaulting the black church is nonsense.
So if this is not about Barack Obama and it’s not about the black church, what is it about?
It’s about something that, in my view, is far more important. Jeremiah Wright is the first man in my lifetime to speak prophetic words against the Sound Bite. In fact, he brought it tumbling down. He was attacked with sound bites—as he pointed out, nobody had listened to the actual sermons used to pillory him—and, in rebuttal, he forced everyone to listen to five solid hours of the ultimate Jeremiad. He single-handedly broke free of the format itself, showing everyone how he moves, how he talks, how he makes points in three dimensions. He was more successful at getting his own views across than any of the three remaining presidential candidates have been at getting theirs across. He made everyone listen to the beginning, the middle and the end of complete stories and complete ideas. He said, in effect, “I refuse to let you take 30 seconds of my sermon and make any conclusion from that.”
Many others have felt sandbagged by the sound bite, rendered impotent by the media, but they were unable to fight back. Jeremiah Wright said, “I will be heard.” And he was. This one man defeated about 200 billion dollars worth of media concentration. He said, “The microphone is mine. I’ll tell you when I’m finished.”
Those who say, “Well, he got away with it because he came along in the middle of a presidential campaign,” should try to do it themselves. It’s not easy to derail the entire media-industrial complex. During the Q&A at the National Press Club, the most “dangerous” time for a politician, Wright was in his element, clearing enjoying himself, zinging the questioners, laughing at the absurdity of it all, and saying, in response to one particularly convoluted question about how he could hurt Obama’s campaign, “I’m not running for president.” He said it with a raised eyebrow, and then added, “However, I’m offering myself for vice president.”
And what came through it all? Reconciliation. He ended each message with reconciliation. Reconciliation is the word of both the apostle Paul and of Nelson Mandela. What could possibly be scary about that? I don’t have to watch the sound bites anymore, I heard the sermon.