By Shailagh Murray and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama again sought to distance himself from the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. yesterday after his former pastor capped a weekend media offensive with an appearance in Washington in which he revisited many of his most controversial comments.
"He does not speak for me," the Democratic presidential candidate said as he campaigned across North Carolina. "He does not speak for the campaign."
Obama aides said Wright had rebuffed their recent offers of public relations assistance. They stressed that they had no warning about a media blitz that included an appearance with Bill Moyers on PBS on Friday night, a nationally televised speech to the NAACP in Detroit on Sunday evening and yesterday's appearance at the National Press Club.
Wright, the former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago who officiated at Obama's wedding and baptized his two daughters, became the center of controversy after clips from some of his most inflammatory sermons hit the airwaves earlier this year. In one sermon, delivered the Sunday after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Wright said that "America's chickens are coming home to roost" for its own acts of "terrorism." In another, he said blacks should sing "God damn America" instead of "God Bless America" to protest centuries of mistreatment.
Speaking before a sold-out gathering that was broadcast live on cable news networks yesterday, Wright told a mostly African American audience that his preaching has been misconstrued by journalists and political pundits who do not understand black religious tradition, which he said was founded amid slavery and racial intolerance and "still is invisible to the dominant culture."
"Maybe now we can begin to take steps to move the black religious tradition from the status of invisible to the status of invaluable, not just for some black people in this country but for all the people in this country."
In his prepared remarks, Wright traced the origins of the African American church in a measured tone and academic language. But during the question-and-answer session that followed, he was defiant.
Queried about his post-Sept. 11 sermon, Wright said: "Well, let me try to respond in a non-bombastic way. If you heard the whole sermon, first of all, you heard that I was quoting the ambassador from Iraq. That's number one. But, number two, to quote the Bible, 'Be not deceived. God is not mocked. For whatsoever you sow, that you also shall reap.' Jesus said, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' "
Wright continued: "You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you. Those are biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic, divisive principles."
Challenged about his patriotism, the former Marine exclaimed: "I served six years in the military. Does that make me patriotic? How many years did Cheney serve?"
Wright also restated the idea that HIV was invented as a weapon against minority communities, had kind words for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and railed against American imperialism.
The media attention to Wright's recent appearances has created another headache for the Obama campaign. The senator from Illinois is struggling to close out the primary season against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) after losing key races in Ohio and Pennsylvania and seeing new doubts raised about his prospects in a general election against Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee.
At a hastily called news conference, Obama made clear his displeasure with his former pastor. "I think, certainly, what the last three days indicate is that we're not coordinating with him," Obama said, although he added: "He's obviously free to speak his mind."
"Reverend Wright is speaking for Reverend Wright," said David Axelrod, Obama's senior political adviser. "He's making his own decisions. He's not seeking guidance." Nor is the campaign happy with the results. Axelrod added: "I think it's pretty clear that Reverend Wright is not out there with the intent of helping Senator Obama. He's out there with his own program."
While Obama sought to tamp down the revived controversy, Wright, in turn, aired a note of displeasure with his former congregant. Obama delivered a speech on race in Philadelphia last month that denounced Wright's sharpest remarks and cast the preacher as an older black man whose views had not changed with the times.
"He had to distance himself, because he's a politician, from what the media was saying I had said, which was anti-American. He said I didn't offer any words of hope. How would he know? He never heard the rest of the sermon. You never heard it," Wright said.
He also joked that he was open to serving as Obama's vice president, and he noted that he would be knocking on the White House door if Obama were to win the general election. "I said to Barack Obama last year, 'If you get elected, November the 5th, I'm coming after you, because you'll be representing a government whose policies grind under people.' All right? It's about policy, not the American people."
Clinton passed on the chance to fan the Wright controversy, only reiterating during an appearance in North Carolina that if she were Obama, she would have left Trinity because of Wright's remarks. But she quickly pivoted to Republicans and an inflammatory ad the state GOP is airing that features Wright and attempts to link the state's two Democratic gubernatorial candidates, both of whom have endorsed Obama, to the pastor. "I regret the efforts by the Republicans to politicize this matter," Clinton said.
McCain has denounced the state party ad but has not shied away from addressing Obama's ties to Wright. Over the weekend, he acknowledged what he called the "anger" of some Americans about Wright's comments and called Obama "out of touch" with voters.
But he and his advisers also see risks in playing to racial passions. McCain has said he does not think Obama shares Wright's most controversial views, including his HIV theories and his defense of Farrakhan.
The Rev. Deborah F. Grant, a close friend of Wright's and the pastor of St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ga., said the scrutiny of Wright is unfair, because he is being examined through a political lens. "He has not been called to be a politician. He's been called to speak the gospel."
But even his allies wonder how long the controversy will linger. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said he watched Wright's NAACP speech twice and thought "he did a very good job of defining himself for anybody who didn't know what he is." On the other hand, Clyburn added, "if you're not interested, or you're looking for some peg, then it may not make any difference to you."
Slevin reported from North Carolina. Staff writers Eli Saslow and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.