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Washington diary: Obama's quandary

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Barack Obama gives a speech on race in Philadelphia, 18 Mar 2008
Mr Obama's appeal has been based on a message of unity and hope

The Freis hardly ever go to church but, five years ago, shortly after we had moved to Washington, I took three of my children to a Baptist church on a Sunday morning to listen to gospel music.

The church was no more than a mile from the White House, in a neighbourhood that had recently been caressed by the gentrification of a still-booming real estate market.

I thought we had crashed a wedding. The men and boys all wore suits, the women hats. But there was no bride and this was no wedding. It was just a regular Sunday service.

We were politely ushered to a pew near the front. As we sat down, every head was turned towards us, the preacher welcomed us and there was a round of applause. My son was tugging my sleeve, as if to say, why are they clapping? I looked round. Every single face, apart from ours, was black.

I was reminded of the scene when Senator Barack Obama said in his speech in Philadelphia that "the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning".

When it comes to race, religion and even class, America, the great melting pot, is still an archipelago of hundreds of tribes living largely separate lives in their own communities.

Perhaps it is one of the luxuries of space in a vast country. Perhaps it is proof of prejudice. It certainly undermines real efforts to understand each other, to mingle, to melt in the same pot.

Racial politics?

And it has posed a particular challenge for Mr Obama, who is more racially-melded than any other presidential candidate has ever been.

The length and bitterness of the campaign, and the brutal need to harvest votes and delegates, has curdled the issue of race for Obama

With a black father from Kenya and a white Christian mother from rural Kansas, he is literally African-American.

Mr Obama's whole appeal has been based on a message of unity and hope, underpinned by his mixed racial origins. The first time I saw him speak was at a book signing in New Hampshire. His was the only black face in the audience.

But the length and bitterness of the campaign, and the brutal need to harvest votes and delegates, has curdled the issue of race for Mr Obama.

Increasingly, he has relied on black voters, while Hillary Clinton has gained a stronger footing among white Americans.

Some argue that these tribal differences have been deliberately and cleverly teased out by the Clinton campaign.

Others charge that it is the Obama campaign which has subtly tried to make the Clintons, once black America's favourite political couple, look like they are playing racial politics.

'Heart-wrenching honesty'

Barack Obama has probably given one of the best speeches of the campaign, genuinely reaching out to resentful whites and blacks, dousing the usual allegorical and oblique debate about race in a huge dose of honesty.

Michelle Obama listens to her husband give a speech on race, 18 Mar 2008
Barack Obama spoke about his own history and that of his wife

It was a great speech. A black and a white colleague both called it the best speech on race since Martin Luther King spoke about his dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That's one hell of a compliment.

But there is a difference. King had a dream. Obama also has an election to win.

And yet, this was the only speech he could have given.

As someone of mixed race he was the only candidate who could have given it with any integrity. I have swum in those waters, as he likes to say.

But will it actually translate into votes, which was after all its ultimate purpose? I don't know.

Barack Obama (l) and the Rev Jeremiah Wright, of Trinity United Church of Christ
Will Mr Obama's refusal to disown the Rev Wright cost him dear?

Its heart-wrenching honesty and nuance of guilt and responsibility may have re-inspired Mr Obama's flagging supporters.

It may also have frightened his detractors even more. Election campaigns don't do subtle.

And every time that speech is replayed, so will be the rasping comments of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright that forced it to be made: the inflammatory remarks about America being damned, about 9/11 being revenge for America's nuclear policy, about the threat from Zionist Israel.

Mr Obama said he disagreed with the comments made by the pastor who christened his children and married him to his wife.

But he did not denounce the man, "who has been like family to me". It was an honourable omission. But it may have killed his campaign.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday at 0030 GMT on BBC News 24 and at 0000 GMT (1900 ET / 1600 PT) on BBC World and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).




MATT FREI'S WASHINGTON DIARY

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