Leonard Pitts Jr

The messenger who killed the message

My cousin thinks Jeremiah Wright walks on water.

He is a minister, my cousin, and for years, whenever I've visited him in Chicago, he has asked the same question: Have I ever attended one of Rev. Wright's services? When I said no, he would lecture me on the wonderfulness of Wright, the innovative ministries he has started, the liberation theology he preaches. I owed it to myself, my cousin would say, to hear him speak.

Well, I've heard him. Call me unimpressed.

Wright, as everyone this side of the Kuskokwim River knows, re-emerged in a big way recently. Having gone into seclusion after inflammatory soundbites from his sermons forced his one-time parishioner, presidential candidate Barack Obama, to make a high-stakes speech on race in Philadelphia, the longtime pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ came out to plead his own case.

He started strong in an interview with Bill Moyers, went quickly downhill with a keynote address before the NAACP in Detroit, and crashed with an appearance at the National Press Club in Washington. Indeed, while some white observers, charmingly eager to pretend they are victims of oppression, have contended for months that Wright's most striking sin is racism, this media blitz argues convincingly that Wright's signature failing is something else entirely: clownishness. With arrogance running a close second.

Not to deny Wright's affinity for the racially-charged soundbite. His refusal to disavow the old AIDS-was-created-by-the-government-to- kill-black-people canard was disappointing, to say the least, playing as it does into an unfortunate streak of paranoia and conspiracy theorizing that runs deep in the African-American community.

Similarly, his defense of Louis Farrakhan against charges of anti-Semitism -- that it's unfair to hold the Nation of Islam leader accountable for things he said 20 years ago -- is singularly weak. Until and unless Farrakhan apologizes for and repents of his years of Jew-baiting, it is entirely fair and, indeed, entirely necessary, for people of whatever religion, race or culture who believe in human equality to denounce him, all his good works notwithstanding.

If you condemn bigotry when it is turned against people like you, but tolerate it when people like you turn it against someone else, you forfeit all claim to the moral high ground. You are a hypocrite acting only from narrow self interest.

For all that, though, the thing about Wright's lost weekend that stands out most for me is his demeanor in the two speeches he gave: smug, mugging for the cameras, signifying, jive talking, acting the fool.

Did he really say an attack on him was an attack on the black church entire? Did he really make those faces and throw that silly salute? Why didn't he just slap his hands together, yell "Dy-no-mite!" and be done with it? Wright came across like drunken Uncle Buddy at the Thanksgiving table, the one who doesn't know he's not funny and won't shut up.

More to the point, he did not come across like a reverend. Or even a Christian. The heck of it is, he had insightful things to say about culture, about difference, about reconciliation. But the messenger killed the message.

It was bad enough that Obama was finally forced to sever ties with him. Bad enough that conspiracy theorists wondered aloud whether Hillary Clinton had a hand in setting up the speeches. Which is crazy, but you understand where it's coming from. Wright is this year's Willie Horton. Except that where Willie Horton was made by George H.W. Bush, Wright made himself.

He had his chance to walk on water but -- sorry, cousin -- he fell in instead. The only remaining question is whether he will pull Barack Obama down with him.