Barack Obama Holds a Press Conference to Address Rev. Jeremiah Wright's Remarks
Tuesday, April 29, 2008; 7:20 PM
SEN. OBAMA HOLDS A NEWS CONFERENCE IN WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA
SPEAKER: SEN. BARACK OBAMA, D-ILL.
[*] (JOINED IN PROGRESS) OBAMA: Yesterday we saw a very different vision of America. I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday. I have been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ since 1992. I've known Reverend Wright for almost 20 years. The person that I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago. His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate, and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church.
They certainly don't portray accurately my values and beliefs. And if Reverend Wright thinks that that's political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn't know me very well. And based on his remarks yesterday, well, I may not know him as well as I thought either.
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 has built a wonderful congregation. The people of Trinity are wonderful people, and what attracted me has always been their ministries 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 centuries, when he equates the United States wartime efforts with terrorism, then there are no excuses.
They offend me. The rightly offend all Americans. And they should be denounced. And that's what I'm doing very clearly and unequivocally here today.
Let me just close by saying this. We started this campaign with the idea that the problems that we face as a country are too great to continue to be divided, that in fact all across America people are hungry to get out of the old, divisive politics of the past.
I have spoken and written about the need for us to all recognize each other as Americans, regardless of race or religion or region of the country, that the only way we can deal with critical issues like energy and health care and education and the war on terrorism is if we are joined together.
And the reason our campaign has been so successful is because we have moved beyond these old arguments.
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 that I find these comments appalling, I mean it.
It contradicts everything that I am 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 is about, I think, will understand that it is completely opposed to what I stand for and where I want to take this country.
Last point. I'm particularly distressed that this has caused such a distraction from what this campaign should be about, which is the American people. Their situation is getting worse. And this campaign has never been about me. It's never been about Senator Clinton or John McCain. It's not about Reverend Wright.
People want some help in stabilizing their lives and securing a better future for themselves and their children. And that's what we should be talking about.
And the fact that Reverend Wright would think that somehow it was appropriate to command the stage for three or four consecutive days in the midst of this major debate is something that not only makes me angry, but also saddens me.
So with that, let me take some questions.
QUESTION: Why the change of tone from yesterday? When you spoke to us on the tarmac yesterday, you didn't have this sense of anger and outrage.
OBAMA: Yes, I'll be honest with you -- because I hadn't seen it yet.
QUESTION: And that was the difference you...
QUESTION: You heard the reports about the AIDS comments.
OBAMA: I had not. I had not seen the transcript. What I had heard was he had given a performance, and I thought at the time that it would be sufficient simply to reiterate what I had said in Philadelphia.
Upon watching it, what became clear to me was that it was more than just him defending himself. What became clear to me was that he was presenting a worldview that contradicts who I am and what I stand for.
And what I think particularly angered me was his suggestion somehow that my previous denunciation of his remarks were somehow political posturing. Anybody who knows me and knows what I am about knows that I am about trying to bridge gaps and that I see the commonality in all people.
And so when I start hearing comments about conspiracy theories and AIDS and suggestions that somehow Minister Farrakhan has been a great voice in the 20th century, then that goes directly at who I am and what I believe this country needs.
QUESTION: Senator, what do you plan to do about this right now to further distance (inaudible) and the need to do that? And what does this say about your judgment of super delegates, who are right now trying to decide which Democratic nominee is better? Your candidacy has been based on judgment. What does this say about...?
OBAMA: Well, as I said before, the person I saw yesterday was not the person that I have come to know over 20 years. I understand that I think he was pained and angered from what had happened previously during the first stage of this controversy.
I think he felt vilified and attacked, and I understand that he wanted to defend himself. I understand that he's gone through difficult times of late and that he's leaving his ministry after many years. And so that may account for the change.
But the insensitivity and the outrageousness of his statements and his performance in the question and answer period yesterday, I think, shocked me. It surprised me.
As I said before, this is an individual who's built a very fine church, and a church that is well respected throughout Chicago. During the course of me attending that church, I had not heard those kinds of statements being made or those kinds of views being promoted.
And I did not vet my pastor before I decided to run for the presidency. I was a member of the church. So what I think it says is that I did not run my pastor through the paces or review every one of the sermons that he had made over the last 30 years. But I don't think that anybody could attribute those ideas to me.
QUESTION: What effect do you think this is going to have on your campaign?
OBAMA: That's something that you guys will have to figure out. Obviously, we've got elections in four or five days, so we'll find out what effect it has.
But ultimately, I think that the American people know that we have to do better than we're doing right now. I think that they believe in the ideas of this campaign. I think they are convinced that special interests have dominated Washington too long. I think they are convinced that we've got to get beyond some of the same political games that we've been playing.
I think that they believe that we need to speak honestly and truthfully about how we're going to solve issues like energy or health care. And I believe that this campaign has inspired a lot of people.
And that's part of what -- going back to what you asked, Mike, about why I feel so strongly about this today -- after seeing Reverend Wright's performance, I felt as if there was a complete disregard for what the American people are going through and the need for them to rally together to solve these problems. Now is the time for us not to get distracted. Now is the time for us to pull together. And that's what we've been doing in this came. And there was a sense that that did not matter to Reverend Wright. What mattered was him commanding center stage.
QUESTION: Have you had a conversation with Reverend Wright lately?
QUESTION: What's going to happen with these distractions that have taken you...?
OBAMA: Well, I want to use this press conference to make people absolutely clear that, obviously, whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed, as a consequence of this.
I don't think that he showed much concern for me. More importantly, I don't think he showed much concern for what we are trying to do in this campaign and what we're trying to do for the American people and with the American people.
And, obviously, he's free to speak out on issues that are of concern to him, and he can do it in any ways that he wants. But I feel very strongly that I want to make absolutely clear that I do not subscribe to the views that he expressed. I believe they are wrong. I think they are destructive. And to the extent that he continues to speak out, I do not expect those views to be attributed to me.
OBAMA: Well, the new pastor, the young pastor, Reverend Otis Moss, is a wonderful young pastor. And as I've said, I still very much value the Trinity community. I'll be honest. This has obviously put strains on that relationship, not because of the members or because of Reverend Moss, but because this has become such a spectacle.
And when I go to church, it's not for spectacle. It's to pray and to find a stronger sense of faith. It's not to posture politically. It's not to hear things that violate my core beliefs. And I certainly don't want to provide a distraction for those who are worshiping at Trinity.
So as of this point, I am a member of Trinity. I haven't had a discussion with Reverend Moss about it, so I can't tell you how he's reacting and how he's responding.
QUESTION: Senator, I'm wondering -- sort of following on Jeff's question about why it's so different now -- have you heard from some of your supporters. You have some, obviously, supporters who expressed any alarm about what this kind of thing is doing to the campaign?
OBAMA: I don't think that it's that hard to figure out from if it was just a purely political perspective. My reaction has more to do with what I want this campaign to be about and who I am. And I want to make certain that people understand who I am.
In some ways what Reverend Wright said yesterday directly contradicts everything that I've done during my life. It contradicts how I was raised and the setting in which I was raised.
It contradicts my decisions to pursue a career of public service. It contradicts the issues that I've worked on politically. It contradicts what I've said in my books.
It contradicts what I said in my convention speech in 2004. It contradicts my announcement. It contradicts everything that I've been saying on this campaign trail.
And what I tried to do in Philadelphia was to provide a context and to lift up some of the contradictions and complexities of race in America, of which Reverend Wright is a part and we're all a part, and try to make something constructive out of it.
But there wasn't anything constructive out of yesterday. All there was was a bunch of rants that aren't grounded in truth. And I can't construct something positive out of that.
I can understand it. People do all sorts of things. And as I said before, I continue to believe that Reverend Wright has been a leader in the Southside. I think that the church he built is outstanding. I think that he has preached in the past some wonderful sermons. He provided valuable contributions to my family.
But at a certain point, if what somebody says contradicts what you believe so fundamentally, and then he questions whether or not you believe it in front of the National Press Club, then that's enough. That's a show of disrespect to me. It is also, I think, an insult to what we've been trying to do in this campaign.
QUESTION: Senator, did you discuss with your wife after having seen Reverend Wright's performance in what was...?
OBAMA: Yes, she was similarly angered.
QUESTION: Reverend Wright said it was not an attack on him, but an attack on the black church. First of all, do you agree with that? And second of all, the strain of theology that he preached -- black liberation theology -- explain something about the anger that seems to be some of the sentiments in the church in (inaudible). How important a strain, then, is liberation theology in the black church? And why did you choose to enter the church then?
OBAMA: Well, first of all, in terms of liberation theology, I am not a theologian. So I think to some theologians there might be some well worked out theory of what constitutes liberation theology versus non-liberation theology.
I went to church and listened to sermons. And in the sermons that I heard -- and this is true, I do think, across the board in many black churches -- there is an emphasis on the importance of social struggle, the importance of striving for equality and justice and fairness, a social gospel.
So I think a lot of people, rather than using a fancy word like that, simply talk about preaching the social gospel. And there's nothing particularly odd about that. Dr. King, obviously, was the most prominent example of that kind of preaching.
But what I do think can happen -- and I didn't see this as a member of the church, but I saw it yesterday -- is when you start focusing so much on the plight of the historically oppressed that you lose sight of what we have in common, that it overrides everything else, that we're not concerned about the struggles of others, because we're looking at things only through a particular lens, then it doesn't describe properly what I believe in the power of faith to overcome, but also to bring people together.
Now, you had a first question, Joe, that I don't remember.
I did not view the initial round of sound bytes that triggered this controversy as an attack on the black church. I viewed it as a simplification of who he was, a caricature of who he was, and more any thing, something that piqued a lot of political interest.
I didn't see it as an attack on the black church. And probably the only aspect of it that probably had to do with specifically the black church is the fact that some people were surprised when he was shouting.
That is just a black church tradition, and so I think some people interpreted that somehow as, wow, he's really hollering, and black preachers holler and whoop. And so that, I think, showed sort of a cultural gap in America.
The sad thing is that although the sound bytes that, as I stated, created a caricature of him, and when he was in that Moyers interview, even though there were some things that continued to be offensive, at least there was some sense of rounding out the edges, yesterday I think he caricatured himself. And as I said, that made me angry, but also made me saddened.
QUESTION: Previously, you talked about giving him the benefit of the doubt for -- especially, I guess, in the Philadelphia speech -- for trying to create something positive about that. Did you consult him before the speech or talk to him after the speech in Philadelphia to get his reaction or his input?
OBAMA: I tried to talk to him before the speech in Philadelphia, wasn't able to reach him because he was on a cruise. He had just stepped down from the pulpit. When he got back, I did speak to him. I prefer not to share sort of private conversations between me and him. I will talk to him, perhaps, someday in the future.
But what I can say is I was very clear that what he had said in those particular snippets I found objectionable and offensive and that the intention of the speech was to provide context for them, but not to excuse them, because I found them inexcusable. QUESTION: (Inaudible) on Sunday, you were asked whether to respond to (inaudible) saying that Bill Clinton had (inaudible). Is the decision (inaudible) irreparable damage? Is this relationship with Reverend Wright irreparable damage, do you think?
OBAMA: There has been great damage. It may have been unintentional on his part, but I do not see that relationship being the same after this.
Now, to some degree, I know that one thing that he said was true, that he was never my, quote/quote, "spiritual advisor." He was never my spiritual mentor. He was my pastor. And to some extent how the press characterized in the past that relationship, I think, was inaccurate.
But he was somebody who was my pastor, and he married Michelle and I, and baptized my children, and prayed with us when we announced this race, and so I'm disappointed.
Thank you, guys. Appreciate it.