HOUSTON -- In March 2008, Barack Obama was in a tough spot.
ABC News uncovered scores of speeches in which Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago where Obama was a parishioner, had used incendiary, divisive rhetoric in his sermons. Saying the “chickens had come to roost” with the attacks of 9/11, railing against government conspiracies to infect blacks with HIV as a means of genocide, it ran pretty deep.
Obama, the then-presidential candidate, was pressed to disavow Wright, the man who officiated at his wedding. Or at least provide an explanation.
This was the would-be leader of the free world. For Obama, giving context to the relationship wasn’t just a prudent move. It was mandatory.
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And Obama did on March 18, 2008 in his “A More Perfect Union” speech.
Wright’s remarks were the catalyst for the speech, but Obama’s words that day went past putting some distance between himself and the pastor’s rhetoric. Obama struck a chord that most of us can appreciate and relate to. Sometimes people we have long-standing relationships with say or do really stupid and embarrassing things . . .
“On one end of the spectrum, we've heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it's based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we've heard my former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation, and that rightly offend white and black alike.
"I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy and, in some cases, pain. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely -- just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.
"But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's efforts to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.
"As such, Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems -- two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health-care crisis and potentially devastating climate change -- problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.
"Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television sets and YouTube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way.
"But the truth is, that isn't all that I know of the man. The man I met more than 20 years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another, to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a United States Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over 30 years has led a church that serves the community by doing God's work here on Earth -- by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.”
Very presidential. Beautifully delivered. Wright, for the record, kept on ratcheting up the rhetoric to the point where Obama did wind up leaving Wright’s flock. (Here’s an interesting essay on that speech and Barack Obama now, nearly nine years later.)
Which brings us to Tom Brady and Donald Trump and the reality that Brady’s friendship with the President of the United States puts him in the media crosshairs this week as the Patriots prepare for Super Bowl LI in Houston.
The Obama-Wright and Trump-Brady relationships are similar in that pressure is being applied for a disavowal/explanation/repudiation/embrace.
But in Obama’s case, something had to be said so that people could better judge his fitness to be president. In Brady’s case, the disavowal/explanation/repudiation/embrace is necessary for . . . well . . . for what, I’m not sure. So that people can be sure he’s fit to play quarterback? So that they can feel okay wearing Under Armour gear? So that they’ll be able to solicit parental handholding in “How to talk to your kids about Tom Brady and Donald Trump”?
Brady, actually, ably fulfilled his role in this. His most ardent response uttered last week on Kirk and Callahan both underscored his grasp on the fact that he’s just the f****** quarterback of a football team -- despite the mythology we adorn him with -- and that his oratory skills don’t compare with Obama’s yet.
“Why does that make such a big deal?” Brady asked. “I don’t understand that . . . I don’t wanna get into it, but, just -- if you know someone, it doesn’t mean that you agree with everything that they say or do. Right? There’s things I don’t believe [in], absolutely. I don’t believe in, you know, there’s a lot of things. Not to denounce anything, it’s just that there’s different things that I feel like, you know . . . I don’t agree with everything. That’s fine, right?”
Donald Trump isn’t Brady’s pastor. He didn’t officiate Brady’s wedding to Giselle Bundchen. Near as I can tell, Brady’s relationship with Trump has been a friendship of convenience. Brady got good at football and Trump glommed onto him, asking him to judge beauty contests and play golf with him. Maybe I’m naïve, but I can’t imagine the two men have discussed much policy over the years.
Donald’s in the locker room. Donald’s in Robert Kraft’s box. Donald’s affixing himself to the Patriots like a remora on a Great White Shark. His presence was like Bon Jovi being around, with the difference being Bon Jovi seems to know some football.
And when Trump came at Brady with lips outstretched in that smallmouth bass fashion, grasped Brady’s hand and cupped his elbow and said, “You could really do me a tremendous, tremendous favor if you would put one of my red hats in your locker. Tremendous favor.”, Brady said what the hell. It was 2015, and everyone was still knee-slapping at the prospect of President Trump.
By the time things got real with Trump’s candidacy, Brady had his own issues to deal with. So when the media began trying to get clarification on Brady’s true feelings about Trump, he wasn’t having it. Brady found out a lot about friendship and loyalty between January 2014 and September 2016 and he wasn’t going to shiv Trump or celebrate him for the satisfaction of the media and a couple of days in the news cycle.
I don’t know how political Brady is. The only comment he ever offered me on it was “What the f*** do I know about politics?” He did show up at one of George W. Bush’s State of the Union speeches. And he took a pass on visiting the White House in early 2015 when Obama was in office. Coincidentally or not, Obama’s press secretary belittled Brady’s first press conference after Deflategate.
Brady’s resistance to putting distance between himself and Trump makes media that loathes Trump more shrill as the days pass. And the conversation has now metastasized from, “What’s Tom Brady’s relationship to Donald Trump?” to “Why Does Tom Brady Hate America?” Everything's at the point of a bayonet. Conform or face scorn. Remember, this is America.
Brady could, of course, ask the President of the United States to STFU for a while and keep his name out his mouth. Trump’s tepid invocation of Brady’s name the night before his inauguration gave me the suspicion Brady might have done that -- in softer tones -- but Trump couldn’t resist saying from a podium to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, “So good luck, Bob. Your friend Tom just called. He feels good. He called to congratulate us. He feels good.”
The questions will be coming this week and it will be interesting to see if Brady continues to duck and move when it comes to Trump.
Or maybe he addresses it head-on. If only Brady could find a great orator with time on his hands to help him put his thoughts into words. You know of anyone?