Friday, March 21, 2008

What a difference a day makes. Twenty-four hours after Barack Obama’s teaching moment on race, the landscape was littered with eminent pundits, lying agog in the weeds, overcome by euphoria and flummoxed by failing eupepsia.

Their squeals of praise were universally breathtaking: “It was an extraordinary moment of truth-telling.” “A masterpiece!” “A profile in courage!” “Brilliant, inspiring, intellectually supple!” “Searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching and loyal.” “A speech we have all been waiting for for a generation.” The punditocracy, having overdosed on nuance, seared by supple and sore from all those wrenched guts, is fresh out of exclamation points, now on back order in newsrooms everywhere.

A day after that, reality intrudes. Pundits only observe. Pollsters take the first true measure of events, and yesterday the first polls taken since the speech reveal that the remarks that Obamaniacs call the greatest speech since Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address look like a disaster.

Rasmussen Reports reckons that John McCain’s lead over both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is growing. Gallup reports similar findings. By Rasmussen”s reckoning, the McCain lead over Mr. Obama has grown to 49 percent to 42 percent, 51 percent to 41 percent over Hillary. Black support for Hillary has cratered, falling to 55 percent in a general election matchup. Mr. Obama keeps his overwhelming black support, as expected, but only 36 percent of white voters say they would vote for him. That’s the ominous statistic; sad and bad as it may be, it’s nevertheless a fact that nobody male or female, black or white or any shade in between can win the White House without a lot of white voters.

Poll numbers will fluctuate a lot between now and November; every poll is only a snapshot. Landscapes change. Barack Obama did what he had to do to distance himself from his hateful pastor and mentor, but by doing so, he brought race to the forefront of the campaign, where it is likely to stay. He has done what he set out never to do, to make himself “the black candidate.” This was what Bill Clinton tried to do to him in South Carolina.

The Internet, which has been so generous to the Obama campaign with its unprecedented ability to convert message to money, now becomes the senator’s Public Enemy No. 1. The videos of the Wright stuff — his calling down God’s damnation on America, his assertion that the AIDS virus is a diabolical invention of the American government to kill all blacks, his gleeful boast that September 11 was the flutter of America’s chickens coming home to roost — will continue to play 24/7, reaching viewers in a way the television networks no longer can.

Mr. Obama described himself yesterday as rattled by the turn of events. “In some ways, this controversy has actually shaken me up a little bit,” he told CNN, “and gotten me back into remembering that, you know, the odds of me getting elected have always been lower than some of the other conventional candidates. As a practical matter, in terms of how this plays out demographically, I can’t tell you.”

Mr. Obama’s rhetorical skills are unmatched by his rivals, all the more effective because a generation of Americans has never been exposed to the magic of oratory. He projects soaring tone and soothing tint that obscure what he’s actually saying. His assurance that his pastor’s racist rants are familiar fare in black pulpits is not reassuring at all (and it’s a libel on thousands of black parsons who faithfully preach the Gospel of the Prince of Peace). His depiction of a white grandmother as a mean-spirited racist, his tolerance of harsh denunciations of whites (like his mother) from the pulpit that he has supported for 20 years with his presence and his tithes, strikes the white voters he must persuade as mean, harsh and inexplicable. This is not the message Barack Obama set out with a year ago when he caught magic in a bottle. Now the magic, and maybe his shot at the White House, resembles only a dashed wish written on the wind.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.

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