Once again, Barack Obama, with his major speech on race, has shown that he is a different kind of politician - a kind we haven't seen since Bobby Kennedy.
So often, politicians try to simplify their messages, so as to be grasped by the lowest common denominator. Stark contrasts are made, caricatures are described, and fear is stoked. Mitt Romney tells us that we cannot have freedom without religion; Hillary Clinton and John McCain alike paint Obama is not up to the task of answering the 3AM phone call; Hillary accuses Obama of offering "change you can Xerox"
The temptation to draw a line in the sand, to be self-righteous, or to over-simplify must have been tremendous. But instead, Obama painted a complex picture of his background, his community, and his campaign, that is rare to see in a political campaign. As such, he asks us to rise to a higher level of discourse.
I was particularly stuck with the way he described the black community, and the black church:
"That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America."
It's so rare to see such a complex picture painted, with such subtlety, by a candidate for the presidency. The question is: can we rise to this level of nuance, that Obama asks of us in this speech?
I have doubts about the mainstream media's ability to pass on such subtle distinctions. Already (moments after the speech), I saw MSNBC playing the following passage...:
"I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed."
... as if it were some kind of "gotcha," or confessional moment, without playing what followed:
"But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam."
Already we see the MSM predictably failing to make the subtle distinctions that Obama's candidacy represents - in this case, between controversy, and resentment gone awry.
I hope Keith Olbermann - as he often does - corrects this mistake tonight on Countdown. More important, I hope that we can resist the temptation to turn Obama's three dimensional message into a two dimensional cartoon.