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Commentary: Missing Barack Obama

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In my set, I am known as the guy who always had some reservations about Barack Obama. Sure, I supported him in the primaries against Hillary Clinton and I voted for him, with both glee and enthusiasm, especially after John McCain uttered the most shocking words in American politics -- "Sarah Palin." But I had such qualms about Obama that I even disparaged his famous speech on race, which almost everyone else thought was just about the greatest ever given on the subject. I just reread it -- and I was bit chastened (I was too severe) but mostly I was just saddened. Where is the man who once gave that speech?

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The speech, delivered in Philadelphia in March 2008, was compelled by the rantings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who had been Obama's pastor and spiritual adviser. Wright, a man of a certain age with the emotional scar tissue that comes from a life in a harshly racist society, had let loose his anger -- and it had been caught on tape and YouTubed around the world. A sermon that had a context and an appreciative audience looked like sheer demagoguery and madness on the small screen. Obama had to kiss off Wright.

He did so with style and with dignity. But more than that, to reread the speech is to be impressed once again with the fluidity of Obama's mind -- his logic, his reasoning and his immense writing talent, which made a great impression on the impressionable people in my profession.

But to reread the speech is also to come face to face with an Obama of keen moral clarity. Here was a man who knew why he was running for president and knew, also precisely, what he personified. He could talk to America both as a black man and a white man -- having lived in both worlds. He could -- and he did -- explain to America what it is like to have been a black man of Wright's age and what it is like even now to be a black man of any age.

Somehow, though, that moral clarity has been dissipated. The Obama who was leading a movement of professed political purity is the very same person who as president would not meet with the Dalai Lama, lest he annoy the very sensitive Chinese. He is the same man who bowed to the emperor of Japan when, in my estimation, the president of the United States should bow to no man. He is the same president who in China played the mannequin for the Chinese government, appearing at stage-managed news conference and appearances -- and having his remarks sometimes censored. When I saw him in that picture alone on the Great Wall, he seemed to be saying, "What the hell am I doing here?" If so, it was a good question.

The Barack Obama of that Philadelphia speech would not have let his attorney general, Eric Holder, announce the new policy for trying Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other 9/11 defendants in criminal court, as if this was a mere departmental issue and not one of momentous policy. And the Barack Obama of the speech would have enunciated a principle of law and not an ad hoc system in which some alleged terrorists are tried in civilian courts and some before military tribunals. Where is the principle in that -- what works, works? Try putting that one on the Liberty Bell.

Of course, there's a difference between campaigning and governing. There is no reality to campaigning. You want Guantanamo closed, you say you'll close it. You want to close it as president, and all of a sudden it becomes a political crisis that costs you your White House counsel, an experienced and principled man named Gregory Craig. Governing is hard.

But governing has to be informed by moral clarity, by the sense that we always know the president's interior life -- his bottom lines. Obama's political career has been too brief for us to know his bottom lines by votes cast in any legislative body or decisions made as an administrator. He had little record but lots of rhetoric -- much of it morally stirring and beautifully written.

As president, though, he has tried so hard to be the un-George Bush that the former president's overweening moralism -- his insistence on seeing things as either black or white -- has become an Obama gray. Human rights in general has been treated like it's a Republican idea. Obama should reread his Philadelphia speech. He'll find a good man there.

Richard Cohen's e-mail address is rcohen@wctrib.com.

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