Obama and the Benefit of the Doubt

There is, obviously, no exact precedent at the presidential level for the nightmare Barack Obama is now living thanks to his former minister’s all-too-eager embrace of the spotlight.

At a basic level, Mr. Obama’s opponents can and will note that the inflammatory rhetoric that has come to define the Rev. Jeremiah Wright—a caricature that the preacher rather willingly reinforced during his smugly defiant National Press Club appearance on Monday—raises questions about Mr. Obama’s judgment and values. Why would he spend 20 years in such a man’s church, presumably listening to variations of what the rest of America heard on Monday?

Far more corrosive, obviously, is the way this whole affair can be—and already is being—used to stoke racial fears and prejudices about Mr. Obama. His ties to Mr. Wright will serve as the main count in the right’s indictment of Mr. Obama’s “American-ness” in the fall. “He’s just not like you and me” will be the G.O.P.’s loudly unspoken message to the white masses, who figure to swing the November election. And the more they see and hear of Mr. Wright, it only seems logical, the more those voters will buy it.

After 40 years of honorably ministering to an impoverished community, Mr. Wright certainly deserved an opportunity to rebut his critics’ harshest attacks, but his press club theatrics were reckless and self-indulgent. He did himself no favors and ensured his famous parishioner weeks—if not months—of further distraction.

In responding, Mr. Obama’s options were limited. Simply repeating his previous, more limited criticism of Mr. Wright might have created new questions about whether Mr. Obama was making excuses for inexcusable behavior.

Instead, he opted to amend his race speech from last month, unequivocally denouncing Mr. Wright and saying he didn’t recognize the man who appeared at the press club this week. The risk of this approach is that it may give Mr. Obama’s foes ammunition to question, once again, his aptitude as a character judge.

And yet he had to do it. Since he is likely to be the first black presidential nominee from a major party, there is an extra sensitivity to the damage potential for Mr. Obama whenever there is some kind of flare-up, big or small, on the campaign trail.

He may, at least, take heart from what happened in Massachusetts just two years ago, when that state’s first-ever black gubernatorial candidate endured a media firestorm not unlike the one Mr. Obama is now facing—and lived to score a historic landslide.

Much like Mr. Obama now, conventional wisdom in the Bay State regarded Deval Patrick as a risky choice for Democrats in their gubernatorial primary in 2006. His campaign was driven by his optimistic and unifying rhetoric, with a life story to match it, but Republicans—who, don’t forget, hadn’t lost a gubernatorial race in the state since 1986—saw him as a dream come true.

As soon as he won the September primary—with a strategic assist from the G.O.P., which aired ads critical of his Democratic opponents—Republicans began an unrelenting campaign to play up Mr. Patrick’s ties to Benjamin LaGuer, a black Hispanic man who was convicted in 1983 of tying up and repeatedly raping his 59-year-old neighbor. Mr. Patrick had donated to Mr. LaGuer’s legal defense fund and, The Boston Globe reported in early October, pleaded Mr. LaGuer’s case to the State Parole Board in letters in 1998 and 2000. In one letter, Mr. Patrick referred to the convicted rapist as “thoughtful, insightful, eloquent [and] humane.”

Given Massachusetts’ dicey racial history—busing riots were barely 30 years old when the ’06 campaign rolled around, and socially conservative attitudes still prevail in many Boston neighborhoods and in the white working-class communities that surround the city—this represented a grave threat to Mr. Patrick. That he changed his story about the letters several times only made matters worse.

The G.O.P. launched a vicious ad showing a white woman walking alone in a parking garage while a narrator rehashed the grisly details of LaGuer’s crime. The media piled on, too.

“The bottom line is this,” Brian McGrory, a Globe columnist wrote. “If Deval Patrick had his way, a thug who bound a 59-year-old woman and repeatedly raped her over the course of eight hours would have been granted parole. There’s no other way to see it.”

But apparently there was. On Election Day, Mr. Patrick won by 20 points. The reason was simple: His story and his style had already connected with voters, and when he spoke directly into the camera in fall ads asking voters to believe the best about him, they wanted to and they did.

That’s Mr. Obama’s best hope for weathering the never-ending Wright storm, too.

Obama and the Benefit of the Doubt