By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 2008
CHICAGO, March 14 -- A campaign spokesman said Friday night that the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., former pastor at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, is no longer affiliated with Sen. Barack Obama's presidential race after coming under fresh scrutiny for controversial comments that the Illinois Democrat called "inflammatory and appalling."
Wright, who presided over Obama's wedding and supplied the "audacity of hope" line that has become one of the candidate's signatures, has been a source of controversy for Obama for months because of the inflammatory words and themes of some sermons.
Last month, in a meeting with Jewish leaders in Cleveland, Obama said Wright was "like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don't agree with."
But more examples of Wright's rhetoric surfaced this week, including a speech Wright delivered in 2006 at Howard University in which he said: "Racism is how this country was founded and how this country was run. . . . We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God." The speech was quoted in an op-ed article in Friday's Wall Street Journal.
In a letter to the Huffington Post Web site Friday afternoon -- and in a later interview on MSNBC -- Obama went further than he has previously gone to distance himself from Wright's comments, while urging voters to judge him "on the basis of who I am and what I believe in."
"All of the statements that have been the subject of controversy are ones that I vehemently condemn," Obama wrote. "They in no way reflect my attitudes and directly contradict my profound love for this country."
Obama said in the MSNBC interview that he did not "repudiate the man."
"I have known him 17 years," Obama said. "He helped bring me to Jesus and helped bring me to church. He and I have a relationship -- he's like an uncle who talked to me, not about political things and social views, but faith and God and family. He's somebody who is widely respected throughout Chicago and throughout the country for many of the things he's done not only as a pastor but a preacher."
Campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor notified reporters tonight that Wright will no longer serve his largely ceremonial role on Obama's African American Religious Leadership Committee. He declined to elaborate.
Obama has worshiped at Trinity, one of Chicago's largest and most prominent churches, for nearly 20 years. He wrote in his memoir, "Dreams from My Father" that Wright had a profound influence over him in the 1990s, when his faith was reaffirmed.
Wright, 66, married Barack and Michelle Obama and baptized their two daughters. He was to give a public invocation on the day in February 2007 when Obama launched his presidential bid. But in a move interpreted by some -- including Wright -- as an effort by the Obama campaign to impose some distance, Wright's appearance was canceled.
Obama said he first learned of Wright's controversial statements at the start of his campaign. Because of the pastor's imminent retirement and the Obama family's strong ties to Trinity and its community, he said, "I did not think it appropriate to leave the church."
"The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation," Obama wrote.
Obama also responded Friday to another lingering issue from his time in Chicago -- his relationship with indicted fundraiser and developer Antoin "Tony" Rezko. He met for about three hours with investigative reporters and editorial board members of Chicago's two biggest newspapers.
Few details appeared to be new. Obama revised upward, to as much as $250,000, his estimate of the money Rezko raised for his early campaigns. He reiterated his mea culpa about coordinating the purchase of his Chicago home with Rezko and buying a piece of an adjoining property from Rezko and his wife.
Obama, who has made ethics a centerpiece of his career, told the Chicago Tribune that he made a mistake "in not seeing the potential conflicts of interest." He said Rezko asked for no favors and added that when he asked Rezko about news media reports of his questionable dealings, the developer denied they had merit.
"My instinct was to believe him," Obama said, the Tribune reported.
Rezko is on trial in a Chicago federal court, accused of using political influence to extort money from companies hoping to do business with the Illinois government. Obama has no connection to the case.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling in Washington contributed to this report.