In every presidential campaign, there will be an event that comes out of nowhere and blindsides the candidate. How the candidate responds is a fair test of fitness for office because life in the Oval Office is dealing with crises that are random and unfair.
John Kerry was unable to respond to the Swift Boat ads and lost the election. Barack Obama's test appears to be his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It surfaced with snippets of the reverend's overheated sermons in which he indicated that America had brought 9/11 on itself and that blacks should sing "God damn America" instead of "God bless America."
In this situation the political playbook, based on painful experience, called for Obama to cut Wright loose, "throw him under the bus," in current parlance. Instead Obama offered a low-key response that was half rationalization, half defense of Wright's rants. Little good it did him.
Instead, Wright seemed to take offense. Obama had worked hard to transcend the race issue and for the most part succeeded. He was working delicately to court white working class voters, especially men, who were most resistant to his candidacy. But Wright then went on a speaking tour to drag the race issue back into the campaign in the most incendiary fashion possible, culminating in an appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Wright surrounded himself with representatives of the Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party. And rarely has a speaker seemed so infatuated with the limelight and the sound of his own voice as Wright.
He repeated what could charitably be called his niche views. The U.S. government created AIDS to wipe out black people. Zionism is racism. The U.S. is a terrorist nation. The anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan is "one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century." The U.S. Marines, with whom Wright once served, are akin to the Roman soldiers who killed Jesus.
And this led New York Times columnist Bob Herbert to ask "why - if he is so passionately committed to liberating and empowering blacks - does he seem so insistent on wrecking the campaign of the only African American to have a legitimate shot at the presidency." More than legitimate. He is the Democratic frontrunner.
By Tuesday afternoon, it was clear to Obama that a soft answer was not going to turn away Wright's nonsense. He opened the political playbook and threw his old pastor under the bus. He was outraged by Wright's comments, he said, which he found "divisive and destructive." It might not be enough. Having basked in all this attention, the egocentric Wright may not be willing to go quietly.
Hillary Clinton has soldiered on in her seemingly hopeless campaign, hoping that something would come out of nowhere to re-fire her candidacy and make the argument that she is the more electable candidate. That something may well be Wright.