A Defining Moment for Obama
Barack Obama tried to put his relationship with his problematic pastor behind him once and for all at a make or break press conference. But will it work?
April 29, 2008 - 2:40 pm
For the second time in a little more than a month, Barack Obama was forced to publicly confront the racial demons released by his self-described spiritual mentor and friend, Jeremiah Wright.
The first time he confronted the beast he was in Philadelphia before a thousand supporters and a still compliant press corps willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. At that time, the candidate gave what most observers believed was a very good speech on race and his own personal spiritual journey that led him to Reverend Wright in the first place. Obama was praised for his honesty and bluntness in dealing with a man he obviously respected but whose words raised questions about Obama’s own core beliefs.
Obama made manifest those beliefs when he tried to explain his problematic preacher to the nation:
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
Clearly, Obama wished to separate himself at that time from Wright’s words without having to throw his pastor off the bus — a delicate balancing act that he managed to pull off by including his grandmother in defending his position on why he was not denouncing Wright:
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
The mention of family raised a few eyebrows among Obama critics but otherwise was lost in the general praise for the candidate’s frankness in speaking about race.
That was then, this is now.
Jeremiah Wright’s speech on Monday at the National Press Club turned into a full blown media feeding frenzy after the pastor not only repeated his charges that the US is a terrorist state, that the country deserved 9/11, and that the US government created the AIDS virus to kill black people, but amplified his charges. Wright also intimated that Obama was forced to denounce his words because of political considerations but that at bottom, he agreed with him.
Despite the media firestorm that broke late yesterday morning and continued to build all afternoon, the Obama campaign was slow off the mark. Obama at first declined to make a statement to the press about the now raging controversy, keeping his distance from the media as he has for much of the last two weeks — ever since the debate and the questions about his other problem radical William Ayers, the former Weather Underground bomber.
But the press had changed its attitude toward Obama in the intervening weeks and had begun to raise serious questions about not only Reverend Wright but other Obama associates as well. At this point, it appeared the controversy would not blow over — not with the press in full-throated howl over Wright’s stupefying performance at the NPC.
By late afternoon in North Carolina, the campaign finally realized what was happening and trotted the candidate out before the traveling press at the airport in Wilmington:
“Some of the comments that Rev. Wright has made offend me, and I understand why they offend the American people. He does not speak for me. He does not speak for the campaign,” Obama said.
Many of the statements that he’s made, both that triggered this initial controversy and that he’s made over the last several days, are not statements that I have heard him make previously. They don’t represent my views,” the senator added.
Considering the incendiary nature of Reverend Wright’s performance earlier in the day, the candidate’s response seemed rather tepid. And most importantly, Obama failed to address Wright’s barely concealed charge that the candidate was a hypocrite because he agreed with Wright about most things but distanced himself from those sentiments now due to political necessity.
Whether it was a failure on Obama’s part to effectively lance the boil or the situation had gotten far beyond any help a mere statement on an airport tarmac could deliver, it really doesn’t matter. By mid morning on Tuesday, the Wright situation had gone viral with even many of the candidate’s supporters wondering how Obama could survive his toxic preacher’s words which were widely seen as racist and unpatriotic.
Perhaps a quick glance at some internal polls finally convinced the candidate to try and get control of the situation. Whatever the reason, a hurried call went out and a press conference was called specifically to deal with the issue of Reverend Wright.
There has been much speculation as to Wright’s motivations for raising his public profile the last few days. A rather sedate interview with Bill Moyers on Friday night was followed by a bombastic address to the NAACP in Detroit, which, probably due to the fact that it was on a weekend, did not garner the interest or headlines that Wright’s remarks at the National Press Club engendered on Monday.
Some of that speculation centers around the idea that Wright deliberately set out to hurt Obama for denouncing his remarks in March. Indeed, Wright at times seemed bitter and sarcastic in his allusions to Obama, almost taunting him by saying that he was playing politics with his relationship.
The candidate himself may have recognized this, which is why for nearly 45 minutes he skewered his former friend and all but said he was a shameless self promoter trying to cash in on his newfound notoriety:
“I have been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ since 1992, and have known Reverend Wright for 20 years,” Obama said. “The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago.”
Obama said he heard that Wright had given “a performance” and when he watched news accounts, he realized that it more than just a case of the former pastor defending himself.
“His comments were not only divisive and destructive, I believe they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate,” Obama said. “I’ll be honest with you, I hadn’t seen it” when reacting initially on Monday, he said.
He also referred to the National Press Club appearance by Wright as a “spectacle,” which along with his use of the word “performance” suggests that he believes Wright’s motivations to be less than honorable.
Beyond that, Obama firmly and unequivocally denounced his former pastor in unmistakable terms – something many observers believed he should have done last month:
Now, I’ve already denounced the comments that had appeared in these previous sermons. As I said I had not heard them before. And I gave him the benefit of the doubt in my speech in Philadelphia, explaining that he has done enormous good in the church, he’s built a wonderful congregation, the people of Trinity are wonderful people, and what attracted me has always been their ministry’s reach beyond the church walls. But when he states and then amplifies such ridiculous propositions as the U.S. government somehow being involved in AIDS; when he suggests that Minister Farrakhan somehow represents one of the greatest voices of the 20th and 21st century; when he equates the United States’ wartime efforts with terrorism, then there are no excuses. They offend me, they rightly offend all Americans, and they should be denounced. And that’s what I’m doing very clearly and unequivocally here today.
Indeed, Obama said that reading Wright’s remarks from Monday, he thought it plain that Wright didn’t know him very well if he believed that Obama was simply engaged in “political posturing” when denouncing his pastor’s words. He added that he himself “may not know him as well as I thought either.”
Stressing his campaign themes of unity and reconciliation, Obama finally seemed to let go of his friend of 20 years by making it clear they have nothing in common:
What we saw yesterday out of Reverend Wright was a resurfacing and, I believe, an exploitation of those old divisions. Whatever his intentions, that was the result. It is antithetical to our campaign, it is antithetical to what I am about, it is not what I think America stands for, and I want to be very clear that moving forward Reverend Wright does not speak for me, he does not speak for our campaign. I cannot prevent him from continuing to make these outrageous remarks, but what I do want him to be very clear about, as well as all of you and the American people, is that when I say I find these comments appalling, I mean it. It contradicts everything that I’m about and who I am. And anybody who has worked with me, who knows my life, who has read my books, who has seen what this campaign’s about, I think will understand that it is completely opposed to what I stand for and where I want to take this country.
While on the surface it may appear that the candidate successfully treated a festering wound to his campaign, other uncomfortable questions surfaced immediately:
Q: Why the change in tone from yesterday when you spoke to us on the tarmac yesterday –
MR. OBAMA: I’ll be honest with you, because I hadn’t seen it yet.
Q: That was the difference?
MR. OBAMA: Yes.
This is silly. You would have to have been in a coma to have missed the frenzy over Wright’s “performance” as the candidate calls it. Indeed, it harkens to the candidate’s attitude toward the entire Wright affair: he has only addressed his pastor’s hateful remarks when they have become a political problem for him.
Lost in Obama’s statement was his reiteration of the idea that he had never heard the Reverend Wright utter such sentiments. Given what the public has seen of Wright over the last three days, that explanation beggars belief. In 20 years of listening to “Black Liberation Theology” — a “social gospel” Obama calls it — the candidate never heard his pastor go off on America, or whites, or Jews? He sits in a Church with a pastor who believes Louis Farrakhan is “one of the greatest men of the 20th and 21st centuries” and never heard that kind of praise uttered in his presence?
Obama has credibility issues with Wright as well as his other problem associates Ayers and indicted Chicago political fixer Tony Rezko. In each and every case, Obama has first downplayed his connections to these political hot potatoes. Wright was a “crazy uncle.” Ayers, a “neighbor.” Rezko, just “one of thousands of contributors” to his campaign. Only when these associations have reached a critical political mass has Obama tried to put out the fire.
It remains to be seen how successful he was today in dousing this conflagration.
Rick Moran is PJM Chicago editor; his own blog is Right Wing Nut House.