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With Obama at the bat, is there no hope for joy in Mudville?

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Strike one was the ump’s fault, let’s say. 

Obama’s a man of color. His middle name is Hussein. His first name rhymes with Iraq, his last with Osama. These are accidents, synchronicities or providences of history, depending on your seat in the stadium. They’re not his fault, and in the Field of Dreams that Obama would build, such trivialities would not count as strikes. 

But in the cold calculus of scoreboards they matter. Take color. Obama gets support of black Americans. He gets Oprah’s endorsement. When Geradine Ferraro says Obama made it to the show because he’s black, it’s an issue. When Bill Clinton compares Obama to Jesse Jackson, it’s an issue. And when Obama’s minister Jeremiah Wright alleges that our government created AIDS in order to kill people of color, and when he makes a chant of “God damn America” in a Sunday sermon, it’s more than an issue.

It’s strike two.

You could see it coming from the top deck. Obama’s had 20 years to take aim at this pitch, but like Casey in Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s perennial classic, “Casey at the Bat,” Obama let it sail right across the plate. He could’ve knocked it out of the park years back by leaving the Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s south side, or by asking Wright to resign. Instead, Obama asked the raspy-throated minister to marry him and Michelle and later baptize their daughters. Wright’s recent resignation comes too late.

Fortunately for Obama this story broke during the 7th inning stretch. The Pennsylvania primary is scheduled for April 22, and there’s been time for damage control. I wrote in a print version of this column that Obama should do three impossible things before breakfast. Convince the public that Rev. Wright speaks for himself. Throw this fastball back at his opponents, by reminding them of incendiary statements by John Hagee, Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell and even Billy Graham, all reverends favored by the right. Finally, I wrote, Obama should change the subject fast by talking about the right of Floridians to vote in an honest primary.

Those were suggestions worthy of a professional political strategist, if I say so myself.

But Obama put such calculations to shame. Masterfully, in a speech on Tuesday, he used this crisis as an opportunity to elevate the debate. Yes, he repudiated Rev. Wright’s hateful teachings, but he embraced the man, portraying him as a flawed father figure, a scarred fount of good works, and yes, ugly pronouncements, but an ultimately well-meaning mentor who’s done much good. He showed how Wright’s a throwback to an earlier generation, comparable to Obama’s own white grandmother, whose stereotypes of blacks he also resents. Don’t most of us know a lovable racist or two?

Obama eschewed the notion of throwing this fireball back at his opponents, and not, I think, because he’s based his campaign on the notion that he’s above such divisiveness. Rather, after watching his speech in real time on TV, I believe it’s because Obama REALLY IS above such divisiveness. He long ago made a decision not to engage in dugout brawls, because he really is about CHANGE.

He changed the subject. This controversy is not about one nutty old man with bile in his heart, Obama suggested. Rather, the subject is the reality of racial grudges in this country. It’s a testimony to his integrity that Obama touched all the bases on Tuesday. He remarked on the history of slavery in this country, yet found room for praising America’s political foresightedness in planting the seeds for equality. He touched on race prejudice as a barrier against blacks getting ahead, but acknowledged the grievances of those poor whites who never harmed a black person, yet worry that people of color sometimes get breaks at their expense. Yes, he suggested, it sometimes happens. He embraced Latinos, Native Americans and many others. In taking such a broad view, he changed the subject.

Keeping it changed won’t be easy. Bloggers and politicos are sifting church bulletins, calendars and videotapes to see what the Rev. Wright preached about on those Sundays Obama sat in the pews. Undoubtedly there’s footage of the Obama baptisms and wedding. Then there’s the video of Michelle saying, “for the first time in my adult life I’m really proud of my country.”

This story has more legs than any Chicago baseball team, though possibly not as many as the cast of witnesses in the Tony Rezko trial. Which brings us to strike three.

“The pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go…” in the words of Thayer. This pitch might just be too endowed with spin, speed and timing for Obama to handle, though he shatter the very air in swinging. The growing blogosphere buzz about Obama’s ties to Rezko could be catastrophic, even if much of the buzz proves false.

That’s because Rezko, who helped Obama buy a house and contributed to his campaign, took money from a billionaire Iraqi-Brit named Nadhmi Auchi who amassed part of his fortune doing business with--I hate to say the name--Saddam Hussein, according to a series of articles in the London Times online.

This link drew a mention on the Glenn Beck TV show a couple of weeks back and is sure to surface again. Yes, Beck is an unprincipled opportunist. Still, if Auchi’s name continues to surface, this could be strike three. Obama could find himself dodging charges--some already hurled by right-handed pitchers--that old, laundered money from Saddam made it into the real estate deal with Rezko if not into Obama’s campaign.

It’s a natural charge for master strategists such as Karl Rove. And his sort will swift-boat Obama unmercifully. Assuming he’s still in the game come April 15, the date by which Hillary promises to release her tax records, watch for a proxy to raise the “Saddam connection.” This could change the narrative long enough to hand Hillary Pennsylvania. A win there could bring Super Delegates her way, and we’d find ourselves in extra innings, come August, with Big Mo on Hillary’s side.

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Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, short story writer, freelancer, and the founding editor and publisher of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of literary stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the (more...)
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