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GLOBE EDITORIAL

Rev. Wright, the sequel

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May 1, 2008

WHEN video clips of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright shouting "God damn America" surfaced on the Internet in March, Barack Obama stopped short of rotely disavowing his former pastor. Instead, the Democratic presidential contender put forth an alternative: Against Wright's dark portrait of America as a land of conspiracies and white-supremacist malice, Obama offered himself, the son of an African father and a white mother from Kansas, as the embodiment of a racially transcendent society.

But Wright, it seems, was not content to be marginalized like a crazy uncle. This week, the preacher reignited the furor over his earlier comments by defending and reinforcing them. This raises a much broader question: How much transcendence can the American political grind really tolerate? How much does America even want?

Obama sought to tamp down the initial controversy over Wright in a daring way. He gave a mesmerizing speech that plumbed the bloody history of racial division in the United States - and its tendency to bring out anger, even hate, in otherwise good people. He asked voters to accept that he could respect Wright's spiritual guidance even as he rejected the preacher's paranoid politics.

Maybe Obama and his supporters were optimistic to think he would get away with soaring rhetoric about healing past divisions. Modern campaigns depend heavily on identifying stable demographic groups and speaking to their anxieties no less than their hopes. An ever-faster news cycle demands new angles; and yet, coverage of racially tinged controversies inevitably evolve into the same old ritual questions. Will X denounce Y? And will that appease or alienate this or that bloc of voters?

Obama's handling of the Wright debacle may, arguably, reflect upon his style of leadership: Can the senator work himself out of political jams? Does sentiment, such as a lingering loyalty to a longtime preacher, deter him from decisions that are difficult politically or personally?

When Wright repeated, among other things, his past praise for hatemonger Louis Farrakhan, the preacher made it clear that the politically expedient move for Obama - ditching a nettlesome supporter - was also the right one. Still, no one who chafes at the idea of guilt by association should feel comfortable holding Obama responsible for every divisive word Wright has uttered.

The Illinois senator has made a career of pushing in the opposite direction - of promoting common understanding among those who might distrust each other. To see those efforts bogging down in the same old swamp is just depressing.

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