WASHINGTON — What a difference four years make.
When Barack Obama was running for president, he successfully managed to distance himself from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, leaving his Chicago church during the campaign and shrugging off suggestions that the preacher’s fiery rhetoric had any effect on him over the 20 years of their close friendship.
How close? Wright inspired the title of Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope.” He conducted the Obamas’ wedding ceremony and baptized the Obama girls. He led the family in prayer on the day Obama announced his candidacy for president.
Four years later, the mere mention of Wright by political opponents is considered racist.
Just ask Republican political strategist Fred Davis. Or his once-potential client, billionaire Joe Ricketts. Davis prepared a proposal for an ad campaign for Ricketts’ consideration titled “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good” — and all hell broke loose.
The proposal, which highlights the Obama-Wright relationship and resembles an ad rejected the last go-round by the McCain campaign, has made tsunami waves thanks to a story on The New York Times’ front page. Who leaked the 54-page proposal may be the most interesting aspect of this story, but we may die without knowing. Or we can watch closely the career paths of various actors in the next several months.
The intent of the ads was to shine a light on how Obama’s character was formed and why he should not be re-elected. They were not a good idea, obviously, but they also were never ads. They were a proposal born of a sense among Republicans that Obama’s relationship to Wright was never sufficiently vetted.
The question of Obama’s character pertains to his denial of the degree of that relationship, not that he found a father figure in Wright when he was still in his 20s. Nevertheless, to question Obama’s character based on his association with Wright at this point seems too much too late.
Obama has a record as president and can be challenged on that record. Raising Wright now would have been a serious miscalculation and would have been interpreted as attempting to inspire racial animus. But it is unfair to smear Davis as a racist, as some have suggested. He obviously created a proposal based on his sense that this would appeal to Ricketts, who said upon viewing the rejected McCain ad: “If the nation had seen that ad, they’d never have elected Barack Obama.”
Davis, whose creativity is widely acknowledged, was obviously aware of the possible racial sensitivity, which is why he also hoped to include prominent African-Americans, such as radio host Larry Elder, questioning Obama’s character. Whites cannot do this without suffering the consequences now in play.
From a strategist’s perspective, Wright is nearly irresistible. Colorful and outrageous, his views are the stuff of political operatives’ dreams. As he confirmed for an audience at the National Press Club in 2008, Wright believes, among many other headline writers’ delights, that the government created AIDS as a means of genocide, that U.S. Marines are like Roman Legionnaires, and that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were merely chickens coming home to roost.
If you’re a Fred Davis, ignoring such statements and the influential relationship of its speaker to the president of the United States would be like ignoring unemployed Americans who long ago lost their jobs when Bain Capital rode into town.
The leaking of the document and the prominent display of the story have been a boon to Obama. They provided yet another welcome distraction, as well as a helpful fundraising tool, and smeared Romney by association.
The power (and hubris) of individual political donors and their offspring — the ads they want to sire — may become the tragedy of this election season. Romney is nothing like a racist, yet suddenly he is forced to distance himself from ads about which he knew nothing. And we now can agree that resurrecting Wright for any purpose would do more political harm than good.
Ricketts apparently would agree. He has distanced himself from the proposal faster than Obama distanced himself from Wright. And poor Mitt Romney had to repudiate an ad campaign that never was, that probably never would have been, and over which he had zero control.
And thus ends another faux controversy about non-ads in the very strange universe known as American Politics.
Kathleen Parker is a Washington Post columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.