By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, explaining why he had waited so long before breaking his silence about his incendiary sermons, offered a paraphrase from Proverbs yesterday: "It is better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."
Barack Obama's former pastor should have stuck with the wisdom of the prophets.
Instead, Wright has gone on a media tour, climaxing with his appearance yesterday morning at the National Press Club. There, he reignited a controversy about race that Obama had only recently extinguished -- and added lighter fuel.
From the moment he entered the room, Wright seemed to be looking to stir controversy; he was escorted by Jamil Muhammad, a leader of the Nation of Islam, which contributed to the minister's prominent security detail. Speaking before an audience that included Marion Barry, Cornel West, the New Black Panther Party's Malik Zulu Shabazz and Nation of Islam protocol director Claudette Muhammad, Wright praised Louis Farrakhan, defended the view that Zionism is racism, accused the United States of terrorism, repeated his belief that the government created AIDS to extinguish racial minorities, and stood by his suggestion that "God damn America."
Far from softening his provocative words, he held himself out as a spokesman for millions of churchgoing African Americans. "This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright," he argued. "It is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African American religious tradition." He added: "If you think I'm going to let you talk about my mama and her religious tradition . . . you got another thing coming."
Most problematic for the Democratic presidential front-runner was Wright's suggestion that Obama was insincere in distancing himself from his former pastor. "He didn't distance himself," Wright announced. "He had to distance himself, because he's a politician, from what the media was saying I had said, which was anti-American." Wright spoke of friends who told him that "we both know that if Senator Obama did not say what he said, he would never get elected," and he said of his past parishioner: "Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls."
And that apparent decision by Obama to exclude Wright from his presidential kickoff announcement? Didn't happen. "I started it off downstairs with him, his wife and children, in prayer."
The pastor's performance puts new pressure on the candidate to say forcefully that Wright doesn't speak for him or the African American church. Though the candidate said on "Fox News Sunday" that Wright had been "simplified and caricatured" by the sound bites of his inflammatory words, Wright willingly embraced the sentiments of those sound bites yesterday.
In front of 30 television cameras, he mocked the media, leveled charges of racism at the government and, at one point, did a little victory dance on the podium. It seemed as if Wright, who jokingly offering himself as Obama's vice president, was actually trying to doom his former parishioner. The pastor played right into the small band of anti-Wright protesters outside, who waved a sign: "Obama's chicken comes home to roost."
In his 30-minute prepared speech, Wright made a cogent call for a "spirit of reconciliation" and delivered a rebuke to those who questioned his patriotism. "Those who call me unpatriotic have used their positions of privilege to avoid military service," he said. He also protested that his infamous quotations were taken out of the full "context" of his sermons.
But the spirit of reconciliation dissipated during the question period, as Wright expanded on his fiery quotes. The crowd (all but a few tickets were bought by churches and organizations supporting Wright) cheered loudly and heckled the moderator, a USA Today reporter, when she tried to maintain order.
He explained his claim that the Sept. 11 attacks meant "America's chickens are coming home to roost." Said Wright: "You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you."
Wright defended Farrakhan's statement "20 years ago that Zionism -- not Judaism -- was a gutter religion." Of the Nation of Islam leader generally, Wright added: "He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century. . . . Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy. He did not put me in chains, he did not put me in slavery and he didn't make me this color." At this point he traded a high-five with Barbara Reynolds, a local pastor.
He repeated his belief that the government created AIDS as a means of genocide ("Based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything"). He defended his earlier comparison of U.S. Marines to the Roman soldiers who killed Jesus, saying the "notion of imperialism" is the same.
The moderator asked the audience whether Wright should apologize for his "God damn America" remarks. Shouts of "No!" followed, and Wright used the occasion to demand an apology for slavery.
"Until that apology comes, I'm not going to keep stepping on your foot and asking you, 'Does this hurt?' Do you forgive me for stepping on your foot, if I'm still stepping on your foot? Understand that? Capisce?"
Capisciamo, Reverend. All too well.
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this column.