On April 9, 2008, I had an op-ed column published in the Wall Street Journal that respectfully raised questions about Senator Obama's response to some of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons and urged the Senator to address (or re-address) these questions now rather than later.
The op-ed was also re-published here on the AC360 Blog, TheHill.com (the original host of my "Pundits Blog" commentaries), the Huffington Post.com, and elsewhere.
It drew a considerable reaction, pro and con, sent to me by e-mail or posted as comments on these and other web sites.
One e-mail sent to me moved me the most, giving me a better understanding of Senator Obama's reaction to Rev. Wright's sermons. While not answering all my concerns, it still opened my mind and heart much more than before.
It came from a highly respected attorney from New York City, Mr. Jeh Johnson, who happens to be an African-American. Jeh is a strong and steadfast supporter of Senator Obama. I have known of and admired Jeh from afar for many years. He also admires Senator and President Clinton and served with me in the Clinton Administration.
After reading Jeh's e-mail, I responded and thanked him for sending it to me. I then asked him if I could re-publish it on the blog sites that published my op-ed piece, and he consented.
Please see below and take the time to read it carefully.
My simple reasons for wanting to publish Jeh's e-mail are:
First, while I am still a strong supporter of Senator Clinton, I hope that others like myself, who consider themselves to be loyal, progressive Democrats but still have some concerns about the Rev. Wright issue, will read Jeh's comments and gain a better understanding, as I did, of Senator Obama and his speech about Rev. Wright's sermons.
Second, I hope that, by reading Jeh's comments, thoughtful supporters of both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton will realize that continuing this type of respectful and civil dialogue helps, not hurts, the Democratic Party's chances in November.
Finally, I want to contrast Jeh's approach to the ugly haters and name-callers I also heard from in response to my op-ed piece.
Senators Clinton, Obama, and McCain, unfortunately know about these kinds of critics – who demonize those with whom they politically disagree; who rant and name-call on daily radio talk shows and nightly cable TV programs; and who fill the blogosphere with personal attacks and character assassination, usually under a cloak of anonymity that precludes accountabilty.
The Jeh Johnson approach of civil and informative discourse, even where there is disagreement, should appeal to everyone – regardless of candidate or party preference – as the best antidote to these practitioners of the politics of personal destruction. Mr. Johnson proves we can vigorously debate and disagree on the issues – and yet, after the nominating process is completed and the next president is elected, we can still work together as a nation to get back into the solutions business.
– Lanny J. Davis, former Clinton Lawyer
Message from Jeh Johnson:
I write this for myself, and not as a representative of Barack Obama or his campaign. I was prompted to write you when I saw your question "Why did he stay a member of that congregation?"
I think much of the debate over Rev. Wright and his statements overlooks the unique role of the black church in the black community. I've never been to Trinity in Chicago, but I've been to many churches like Trinity. Historically, the black church is the one place for blacks free of any white influence, something blacks can call all their own. It's the fraternity, the funeral director, the marriage counselor, the lawyer, the tax preparer, the therapist, the AA anonymous. Black churches such as Trinity are often the center of the black community, the one place where people of different economic classes come together to see each other, worship God, engage in community service and outreach, and it is about much more than the pastor.
I am not biracial and I did not grow up in Hawaii. I did grow up in an overwhelmingly white community, and was constantly plagued by my minority status. I had no place to turn to find my own identity. My parents then had the wisdom and good sense to send me to Dr. King's alma mater, Morehouse College in southwest Atlanta, the only all-male black college left in the country, and that four-year experience basically made me who I am today.
While there, I started attending the Baptist church across the street (though I am an Episcopalian). It was a real, down-home black church. My very first reaction to it was shock and slight amusement. The pastor was often over the top in his sermons, and he drove a Mercedes despite his poor congregation. I would listen to the good Rev. and often disagreed with much of his overheated rhetoric, but I kept going back to this church.
Why did I do that? For the first time in my life I felt like a full participant in the black experience, with no conditions. No one questioned who I was, where I came from, what I had done before to prove my blackness. There was just an elderly lady with a big smile at the door who handed me a program and said "God bless you son."
While there I witnessed poor and uneducated black people shake off misery, poverty, addiction, alcoholism, death, sickness, relatives in jail and all the other stuff that makes life challenging in the big city. Women in white uniforms walked the aisle to catch people as they passed out from it all. During the service, a deacon or someone else would describe all the different church-related activities for outreach, helping someone who had lost a job, or visiting the sick and shut-in who could not make it to church.
On the way out, someone else would say "come back again and see us young man" though they didn't know me at all. By attending that church, I felt part of the community around me, and it was quite uplifting on Sunday after I went back to the books. Barack has never explained it this way, but I suspect given the way he was raised he felt some of the same things when he first started attending Trinity, and why he found a home there.
In the course of my own life, I have encountered many very militant and angry elements of the black community, much of them as formative for me as the large corporate law firm in which I am now a partner, the Clinton Administration, or growing up in Wappingers Falls, New York. But, it would be an act of sheer hypocrisy for me to try to renounce any of this. For example, at Morehouse many educated teachers and invited speakers blasted the white man, black men who acted like the white man, and condemned our whole society as fatally racist.
When I graduated in 1979, Louis Farrakhan was our baccalaureate speaker and Joshua Nkomo, leader of the armed struggle to liberate Zimbabwe, was our commencement speaker. With Coretta Scott King sitting near the front row, I vividly recall Nkomo preaching "the only thing the white man understands is the barrel of a gun." I certainly didn't agree with that then, and I don't now. But I love Morehouse and would rather quit all involvement in public affairs before I had to sever my ties of support to the school. Morehouse is part of what makes me a proud African-American.
A good friend to me from my parent's generation, a retired ivy-league professor who is like an uncle to me, was branded a dangerous radical and subversive by our government in the 1960s. J. Edgar Hoover wiretapped his conversations with Dr. King. But, if someone combed his books and found something he wrote with which I disagreed, I'd rather disassociate myself from my right arm than publicly renounce this man.
The reality is this: Those of us who participate in both the white and African-American experiences will very likely have a Jeremiah Wright in our lives – it could be our teacher, our uncle, our brother, our father, or our pastor. It is simply part of the American experience.
But, here I am, a patriot who – I can honestly say – harbors no "anger" or racial animosity toward anybody, including my white law partners, my white neighbors, or my white family members. I can't guarantee much about anything in life, but I can guarantee, from what I know about Barack Obama, that he feels the same in his heart and soul.
– E-mail from Jeh Johnson, a lawyer and Obama supporter, sent to Lanny Davis
Lanny J. Davis, a Washington attorney, is a supporter of Senator Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.